When I was growing up, my family went through financial lows and highs, and I never felt rich or poor. I grew up in a large house nestled on a few acres of woods in Georgia that my parents bought when property and building a house was extremely reasonable.

Even in financial pinches, my Dad was always a sharp investor and paid for most things in cash. Money was often unpredictable, and I learned not to depend on it always being there. And I also learned I didn’t need money to have the kind of lifestyle I wanted.

Money was just a tool to me, and if that tool wasn’t available, I just found another one to use.

Travel was also free and plentiful, no matter our financial standing. The two were not mutually exclusive or even related. My Dad (and one of my brothers) are pilots and we always flew standby in any extra seats for free. From an early age, we learned that a vacation started with a 4:00 a.m. wake-up call to hop the first flight out, and the game of “Lifeboat”, or “Who’s Going on This Flight if There Aren’t Enough Seats?”

One parent always went, followed by one of the three of the kids, followed by the other parent. It was not uncommon to make this decision in 10 seconds flat and watch other family members board while the others waved – bored at the thought of another 2 hours at the airport until the next flight. Some days we got first-class and other days the middle seat by the toilet. It was a matter of luck, not money. And because I lived in a community with a high percentage of pilots and flight attendants, all of my friends knew the same.

Our collective understanding of travel was some uncertainty and waiting, but not money. When I moved to New York and had my own income, I bought tickets when I could, opting for a less stressful way to travel than standby. I also preferred flights that didn’t require a 4:00 a.m. wake-up call. When I was short on cash, I asked my Dad or brother for a flight pass. I used Priceline, I used flexible searches to find the best deals, I tried to volunteer to get bumped off the flight in exchange for a voucher, and I aired my grievances.

I believe in thoughtfully, politely complaining when airing valid grievances are due. Five canceled or delayed flights in a row of various trips with American Airlines and I sent a letter with all my flight numbers and details, ending with a request to please let me know why I should continue flying with their company. I received a $150 flight voucher.

Missing bags on US Airways coupled by a chaotic system to retrieve them, gross misinformation, and baggage not being delivered in a timely matter resulted in $40 flight voucher. A water break at a hotel, followed by misinformation and a chaotic check-out system resulted in a refund of $120. Soon I was taking partially free trips without flying standby and I decided to delve into frequent flyer mile arbitrage.

When my husband and I got married, he didn’t understand my utter nonchalance for needing money to travel. I just told him to get a Passport if he wanted to come.

We took out an American Express credit card and received 25,000 miles with our first purchase on Delta Airlines, and my husband got the same. We put all of our new expenses on our cards and soon ended up with over 100,000 miles in just a year or two by taking advantage of double mile programs and purchases.

Our airline tickets to Budapest cost about $300 total for two tickets, combined, in taxes. Because I was travel writing on an assignment, the tourism board put us up for free on the Danube with a stunning view of the Parliament building for an entire week and we received free city passes, a one day guide, and a meal. We spent our money on goulash, beer, and a handful of Christmas presents.

This was around the time my husband realized we were traveling more luxuriously when we had limited income than when we had jobs or steady freelance work and weren’t going anywhere. There are always credit cards giving out miles, just read the fine print, know when to cancel before annual fees kick in, and make sure it’s a card you haven’t already signed-up for in the past, or you may be shut out of their special new member benefits. But there’s more than just frequent flyer miles on most cards:

  • Travel agent services or assistance booking.
  • Upgrade options.
  • Airport lounge access.
  • Decline the collision waiver insurance when you rent a car.
  • 24/7 for medical, legal, financial, or other emergency assistance while traveling more than 100 miles from home.
  • Up to $100,000 in Travel Accident Insurance.
  • Exclusive access to concerts and entertainment.
  • Special promo codes for discounts on entertainment.
  • Extended Warrant of the original manufacturer’s warranty.
  • Refund purchases when the merchant won’t take it back.
  • Repair, replace or reimburse for products that you accidentally break.

Benefits vary, so read the fine print. For travel hackers, the most important thing to you is going to be the mileage. Most credit cards participating in frequent flyer programs will start you out with at least 10,000 miles, though it’s easy to opt for at least 25,000 for a free domestic round-trip ticket. The ones with higher payouts of 50,000 miles and above usually have a stricter application process and spending minimum.

If you want to need a place to start and want to compare cards, try the airline credit cards section at CreditCards.com for a varied list. That takes care of air travel, so what about lodging? There are free, cheap, inexpensive, and relatively inexpensive options to try:

  • CouchSurfing.com for free. Stay on someone’s couch or spare room with verified members of the Couch Surfing community across the world, including Antarctica. You can read reviews, connect, see pictures, and more.
  • Youth Hostels. You can find beds from $10 on up with public, semi-private, and more expensive private rooms.
  • Yurts. Go upscale camping in these tents that resemble compact, elevated living areas.
  • Dorms. Many colleges around the world rent out their dorms during seasonal breaks. We stayed in a small dorm room in Edinburgh, Scotland for about $80 a night instead of the $140 for nearby hotel options.
  • Convents and Monasteries. Spain and Italy are excellent choices to stay on the cheap. You don’t need to be religious or married, though some convents are for women only. There are usually communal bathrooms and curfews of 11:00 p.m. or later. When my husband and I stayed in a convent in Rome, our room was around $77 instead of $120 it would have cost to stay in the same part of town. But I doubt the hotel staff would have pushed our twin beds apart each morning during room servicing like the nuns.
  • Vacation Mobile Homes. Europe has numerous mobile home parks on the outskirts of its cities complete with playgrounds, pools, and recreational areas. Some will even allow a free visit if you’re considering purchasing a home.
  • Farm Stays. Work on a farm in exchange for free room and board and still have time to explore the countryside and nearby cities. There’s an excellent resource article on Farm Stays over at Transitions Abroad.

Costs for 7 nights in the above options vary depending on the season and city, but it’s not unusual to find something for $10 – $75 a night, if not outright free for couch surfers and great couch surfers. The youth hostels, convents, monasteries, and dorms I stayed at all served some kind of continental breakfast. After breakfast, we wrapped up fruit and croissants to go for a light lunch before a large dinner in the early evening.

Let’s whip up an imaginary budget:

  • $225 for airlines taxes on a rewards ticket using frequent flyer miles for one person.
  • $50 a night (or less) for lodging.
  • $45 a day (or less) for food and entertainment.

Save up $2.44 a day for one year, and you’ll have enough for a week abroad. The above number is really just an arbitrary budget that you can adjust accordingly at any time you choose. Make it $1.23 a day if you want, just set the goal and plan for it. You’ll save more if you can travel with a friend to split costs, crash with a friend or acquaintance for free, stay central to a city to avoid transportation costs, participate in a free bike sharing program to get around and exercise some creative strategies.

The trick is to prioritize on what matters to you most – comfort, meals, beer, entertainment, art, location, culture, shopping, or budget. You also need to adjust for higher taxes on a particular airline, discover free museum days, go hiking for free, attend free concerts, and frequent outdoor spots with no admission. It doesn’t matter what you do, just know you can make it work, even in the most expensive cities in the world.

But it’s more than just the money. Actually, it is about the money, just the lack thereof. Creating an inspired budget and staying in alternative lodging, like a convent or monastery, offers a more meaningful and valuable experience.

More money, and you’re bound to stick to what you’re accustomed to and never step out of your comfort zone.

Alternative lodging options means you’re usually staying among the locals, often in their very own homes. The Roman nuns at the convent lived upstairs and served us breakfast in between Mass and taking care of the property. (Our favorite was ‘The Breakfast Nun’ who scolded me to wait so she could ask I wanted chocolate on my Cappuccino). It was also humbling to stay in the nuns’ spotless quarters and realize they were not only inviting us into their homes, but running a small business. I’d rather patronize their and devotion to the public than a chain hotel. I don’t mind chain hotels when a necessary option, but not when I can stay somewhere as authentic and magical as a Roman convent.