Brittany Hong was watching a PBS segment on a traditional Thai tattooing method, Sak Yant, dreaming about getting the tattoo, when the realization hit. She was only 26 years old, but she would never go to Thailand. In fact, she’d never travel anywhere beyond her city. Stuck in a nearly decade-long cycle of substance abuse, anything beyond her squalid apartment just wasn’t an option—unless she made a change.
“I had all these big ideas, but the drugs and the alcohol always took priority,” Hong says. “You have to be able to plan for [travel], and I just could never do that. So I had these big ideas but a small life, and I just watched my life constantly pass me by from the barstool.”
What felt like her unchangeable future proved not just changeable but also hopeful. That PBS moment sparked something within Hong. In 2013, two years after watching that segment on Thailand, Hong hit rock bottom.
“Alcohol and drugs will rob you of everything,” Hong says. “It’s an eventuality.” For Hong, it took the loss of her two children—her parents took them under their supervision—and a brutally honest conversation with her mother to see reality. Enough was enough.
“I detoxed alone,” she says. “That was really impactful for me because I found myself alone in a house with no friends, no family, and that’s where it had taken me. Nobody was calling to check on me. And when I got up, I went to an AA meeting.”
After that July 7 Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting, Hong never looked back.
Lay a strong foundation before taking that first trip
Although Hong wanted to jump straight into traveling, she waited three years to take her first trip. First, she had to do the work to set her life in order. Her sponsor (someone in AA who was further along in her sobriety journey) reinforced the importance of laying the groundwork for responsible adulthood.
“She really taught me how to be a woman with integrity,” Hong says. “I had spent so long avoiding all my problems, hiding in a bottle, that I really had lost the ability to know how to deal with my life.”
Hong started with small, practical steps. These things included paying bills on time, building her credit, and creating healthy routines for her life. One of the simple yet foundational routines her mentor requested was that Hong make her bed each day.
“I was trying to get sober, and my life was in shambles,” Hong says. “I could not believe that this woman was telling me that I needed to make my bed. I had bigger problems, but I had no idea what to do and she scared me a little bit, so I started making my bed every day.”
Each day that she made her bed, Hong found herself taking other small steps: putting her water glass in the sink, putting her laundry away, or vacuuming.
“We tend to want to think of everything as like, we go all in, and it’s these little action steps that we build upon,” Hong says. “It started with my bed and I was able to really start to do things and take care of myself.”
Once she had these components together, Hong began to pursue her travel dreams.
Start small with what’s around you
Continuing on her sober journey—and reunited with her children—Hong started with short solo trips that were manageable for her as a single mother. As she overcame the different obstacles in her way—finding sober-friendly destinations, sorting out childcare, discovering her own interests—her perspective began to change. She stopped looking for excuses and began looking for solutions.
“I had this mindset from drinking like, I can’t do this. It was always, well, I can’t, and I started looking for the ways of how I could,” Hong says. “Thailand was off the table, but going for a weekend trip? I live in Tennessee. So can I go spend the weekend hiking in the Smokies? I really started learning how to use my resources.”
As a single mother, Hong also learned to ask her parents and friends for support and childcare.
“Most people want to help,” she says. “You could go to a friend and ask if they could help watch your kids for the weekend so you can go to New York where you’ve never been. Give people the opportunity to help out. We tend to shy away from that but for the most part, people want to be able to do that.”
Hong would also swap childcare help with friends. She would watch her friends’ children for a weekend, and they would watch hers in return.
Tackling the logistics for more minor trips taught Hong how to be resilient, but it also allowed her a training ground that wasn’t too far from home if she needed to go back to her safe space.
Plan your answers—and your exit strategies
In environments where there was alcohol, Hong had to learn what she felt comfortable saying when asked why she wasn’t drinking. During a visit to Los Angeles, she was seated at the bar area of a restaurant. Other guests were sending drinks her way, and she was the only solo woman dining in the area. She felt uncomfortable. Protecting her sobriety in that moment was as simple as flagging the waiter down to get reseated somewhere quieter.
“You don’t have to be a hero; you don’t have to prove anything,” Hong says. “If you’re not comfortable saying you’re an alcoholic or that you’re not drinking, that’s totally your choice. One of the [lines] that I’ve used before is that I’m on medication that I can’t drink with. Or no, thanks, I have to drive tonight. No is a complete answer, but at the same time, I also think that when we’re trying on something new, sometimes it’s nice to be able to say, no thanks, and give some type of reason.”
When she stays at Airbnbs or hotels, she always contacts the host ahead of time to request any alcohol be removed from the fridge or room. Hong also stresses the importance of having a planned way out if you’re going into an environment that might be problematic.
“Go ahead and plan to only stay for an hour and see how that feels,” she says. And understanding transportation is crucial. “If I go out, how do I leave if I start feeling uncomfortable, or everybody’s just drunk, and I don’t want to be there anymore? How can I get myself out of this situation?”
Hong always prefers to have her own method of transportation. She recalls an instance when she went on a weekend trip with a friend but each of them drove their own car. What she thought would be a sober-friendly getaway quickly turned into heavy-handed drinking. Once she realized the situation, Hong left quickly and safely in her car.
Remain open to new experiences
On the journey of sobriety, there’s also a process of learning new hobbies and pastimes as old habits get cut out.
“When I first got sober, someone asked me what I like to do for fun,” Hong says. “I remember it leveling me. What do I like to do for fun?” In sobriety, she started trying new things. She took pottery classes, ran a half marathon, and learned how to rock climb. “I started developing these hobbies,” she says, “and I carried them with me into my travels.”
When planning new experiences, Hong tries to book activities exclusive to the area she’s visiting.
“Use your resources,” she says. “Wherever you’re going, look up daytime activities. Google is our best friend. Ask other people. Travel groups for women are really huge. Do your research because there’s so much to do; we just narrow that for ourselves when we think of activities that are like, ‘How can I get drunk?’”
With alcohol off the table, Hong says she’s been able to go much deeper into her travel experiences with activities like cooking classes and rappelling in Zion National Park. She also noticed deeper connections with those she meets in her travels.
On one solo trip to Lake Powell for a half marathon, Hong was looking for a starting position before the race. Another runner caught her eye, and Hong felt compelled to strike up a conversation. The runner and her husband turned out to be sober.
“Out of the thousands of people at this race, I walked up to the two people that were sober. She and I ended up running together the whole time,” Hong says. “She was just another woman living her life big and bold, and I needed an example of that in that moment, and I walked right up to it.”
Lean on your community
Even on her solo trips, Hong relies on her support network—her sponsor in particular. Before trips, they would discuss how she felt and potential concerns or issues to look out for.
“I would check in with her before [I left] and then every day or every other day,” Hong says. “Just being tethered to someone, letting them know where I’m at and what’s going on—which is a safe travel practice in general.”
She encourages other sober travelers to do their research before going on a trip and connect to others within the sober community.
“Do some due diligence,” Hong says. “Like asking a sober friend to go with you, planning it with somebody who’s sober, and also seeing what resources are in the area. Be thoughtful in your travel: Where am I staying? Is it that kind of vibe there?”
One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic has been the increased accessibility of meetings and resources as things are moved online. Hong encourages people to look for accountability and support groups in the destinations they’re visiting but also consider online support groups.
Understand that not everyone will understand
When she first began traveling solo, Hong received a lot of pushback and shame from others for not bringing her children along.
“It was important for me and my story to find my identity and find what I loved,” said Hong. “After being a mom and being in active addiction, I had lost myself. I took a deep responsibility to become a whole person and a happy person so I could then show up for my daughters.”
It wasn’t easy, especially as people implied Hong wasn’t a good mother or that she was raising her kids wrong. She said it really impacted her, hurting her feelings in the beginning.
“I was questioning myself a lot at first, but the more I did it, the more I understood I was becoming a better person,” Hong says. “Because it’s a muscle, right? Because it doesn’t come intuitively. We are expected as women to put everybody before you, so I had to practice getting OK with that and practice swimming up against the stream.”
Hong’s decision to go against the grain hasn’t just impacted her life. She’s seen a ripple effect in the lives of those around her too.
“I will never regret the travels and the things that I’ve done,” Hong says. “It makes me a better, happier person and a better mom and I’ve watched it give my daughters the freedom to be more authentically themselves.”
Hong attributes her perspective and courage to her sobriety. Sobriety has given her a second chance at life, a second chance that she doesn’t intend to take for granted.
Hong has gone on multiple trips since getting sober and makes it a habit to go on at least one solo trip per year. And Thailand? Hong finally made it in 2019, where she got a Sak Yant tattoo (a tattoo traditionally given by Buddhist monks as a protective talisman).
Ajarn Kaidet, also known as Toto, was one of the few Sak Yant masters who would perform the tattoo ritual on women. Hong sat on the cool tile floor while the former monk hand-etched the tattoo onto her back, chanting protective prayers as he dipped the long bamboo needle into ink and then into her skin.
“I just remember thinking, I was finally able to make my own dreams come true,” Hong says. “I was able to do that for myself, the self who never thought something like that would be able to happen.”
>>Next: How to Calm Your Travel Anxiety