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Cheap Summer Travel Through Frequent Flyer Miles

Bangkok at a Buddha factory outlet
Chris in Bangkok at a Buddha factory outlet!

Teaching Traveling: Want to know how to travel the world for cheap during your teacher summers? Chris Willard will share his tips!

Chris, tell us about your background.

Chris: I grew up in the Boston area, and did some traveling with my family growing up, and a little bit in college. It wasn’t until a few years after graduating from Wesleyan, about ten years ago, however, that I discovered how easy and cheap it was to backpack around anywhere in the world.

I’ve since been through 14 countries in Latin America, and the same number in Asia, and have become, well, rather obsessed with traveling and/or planning trips.

A street scene from Chris's Cambodia travels.
A street scene from Chris’s Cambodia travels.

These days I’m an author of books about meditation with kids and teens, clinical psychologist and private tutor working primarily with adolescents and college students, although I started out as a teacher in a special education school.

I really appreciate the perspective that travel brings to my work: how it helps in thinking about what is universal in the human experience, and what is cultural and contextual. Plus, I love encouraging and inspiring students and professionals I work with to travel more.

TT: Explain one (or more) interesting travels you have undertaken.

C: Wow, just one!? I think I’ve loved every trip I’ve taken in a different way, whether it was scaling 20,000 foot mountains in the Andes, biking through monsoon rains to Burmese ruins, or quietly contemplating nature at a meditation retreat in northern India.

At Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid's grave in Potosi, Bolivia.
At Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s grave in Potosi, Bolivia.

I think the absolute best is to be able to take a month during the summer and really get into travel in depth in a particular region. That’s what I did throughout graduate school, and still today which I can do with summers off. I work in higher education.

TT: How did you find these travel opportunities?

C: I just always wanted to go!

TT: How did you find the money to fund this travel?

C: You know how you hear about those people that are frequent flyer crazy? Like sign up for things and cancel to get miles? It’s hard to do without paying more than it’s worth, but I’ve worked out a formula and I almost NEVER pay for flights.

That includes four trips to Asia where I never paid for a ticket! Also, if you find somewhere cheap and are careful about spending, you can really stretch your money out. Asia and Latin America (with a few exceptions) are best for this.

Girl selling tarantulas in Cambodia. Oh my!
Girl selling tarantulas in Cambodia. Oh my!

TT: I agree! My budget including EVERYTHING for Asia travel was $30 a day! Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful, interesting, or funny.

C: Again, where to begin… Local college kids show me around town on their motorcycle and getting chased by the police in India, sleeping in a tent next to a stove that burned yak-dung at the base of Mt. Everest, and surviving monkey attacks are all amusing stories. Staring genocide in the face in Cambodia, visiting Vietnam’s “museum of American war crimes,” or seeing the poverty and working conditions of the indigenous people in the mines in Bolivia are each powerful and heartbreaking.

Still, my favorite moment had to be falling asleep by myself on a train full of strangers somewhere in central India. Not exactly sure where I was going, not knowing a single person for thousands of miles, but feeling so unbelievably free. The only thing to think about the next day being where my next meal and bed might come from.

Chris at The March for Indigenous Rights in La Paz, Bolivia.
Chris at The March for Indigenous Rights in La Paz, Bolivia.

One special trip is one of my most recent, in part because it involved getting paid to travel and gaining recognition for my passion as a teacher and child professional. I was invited in January to give a few lectures in Finland about bringing mindfulness meditation young people.

I spoke to a some groups of teachers, therapists and professionals about a topic that is my absolute passion, got all my expenses covered in an amazing new country, met amazing and passionate people from around Scandinavia, and got paid for it! If I can continue to make that work somehow… I’ll be living the dream!

Also, while I was there I also got to tack on a few days visiting more of Finland and seeing St. Petersburg, Russia, which has always been a place I’ve wanted to go, even if Russia in February was -16F, and the sun didn’t rise till 10am. I’m heading back to Finland this summer as well, and looking forward to exploring more of northern Europe in addition to working with Finnish professionals on bringing mindfulness into the classroom in the Finnish school system.

Chris in the Cu-Chi tunnels in Vietnam from the war.
Chris in the Cu-Chi tunnels in Vietnam from the war.

TT: How have your travels impacted you as a teacher?

C: I love the perspective I get, and the ability to teach from direct experience- telling kids what it’s actually like to be in those places and talk to the people, or funny idiomatic quirks about Spanish slang in Bolivia. I also love learning about other cultures, and that is very important to my work, as I work with so many people of different backgrounds. I just feel like I have so much more of a broad perspective on things now.

Also, as an author of books about meditation and mindfulness with kids, it’s helpful for me to talk to locals who have experience with meditation in their culture, or may have interesting perspectives and anecdotes, so I can bring that back to my writing process as well.

The world's highest road, Ladakh, India.
The world’s highest road, Ladakh, India.

TT: How have your travels impacted you as a person?

C: I have a deeper appreciation for human struggle: poverty, trauma, health issues… I take many fewer things for granted than I used to, and have a lot more gratitude for what I do have (including the ability to travel)!

I also just want to share my passion for travel, and have loved doing my own writing about the places I’ve been, if only for myself. Of course, I am hoping to write a book about traveling in Buddhist countries someday, but then, isn’t travel writing everyone’s dream job?

TT: What advice do you have for other teachers who are dreaming of travel?

Chris in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Chris in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

C: Just do it. Start with a well-traveled country with a friend or partner, like Thailand or Costa Rica, and see how easy it can be before you move on to someplace more challenging.

At least some of the time travel alone. You meet SO many more local people, meet other travelers, and are so much more likely to have amazing and unexpected adventures along the way.

Don’t forget you can also ACTIVELY learn. Not only can you do community service on trips, but you could take courses abroad: learn Spanish in Guatemala with a private tutor for a few bucks an hour (and maybe even tax deduct your trip!), take a cooking course in Vietnam, learn to meditate in India, a tango class in Argentina, or practice martial arts in Brazil or Thailand!

Find a local or an expat to take you around, even if it’s a friend of a friend of a cousin, expats living in foreign countries often are happy to have visitors, and you can get the insider experience.

Talk to other travelers to get ideas, read some inspiring travel books (I love Paul Theroux), get into a conversation on the Lonely Planet Thorntree Forum, think about WOOFing, find grants, learn about tax deductions or course credit, and save those frequent flyers!

Chris with new friends during Tibet travel.
Chris with new friends during Tibet travel.

TT: Thanks for your inspiration and advice, Chris!

I love how you combine mindfulness, writing, teaching, and extensive world travel.

We have much to learn from you!

Readers, feel free to check out Chris’s websites,, and his site, “Eat More Books.”

Now, what questions or comments do you have for this Teacher-Traveler?


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