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Going Our Way: Using your noodle in San Diego

By Carol Sottili
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 28, 2010;

Who: Jill Ward, 29, of Germantown and Bill McCarthy, 28, of Atlantic Highlands, N.J.

Where: San Diego

Why: A reward for Ward's just-earned MBA and her new job

When: Three nights/four days in late March/early April

Budget: $1,000

"I would like the trip to be a blend of lazy beach days, exploring the local scene (food, day trips, music, etc.) and one nice evening out! $1,000 is the goal, understanding that a bit more might be necessary: I'm a savvy traveler, and I like the challenge. Also, I will be a recent MBA graduate with a small budget but a major need for a getaway."

San Diego offers a nice combination of natural beauty and urban vibrancy. Throw in Southern California's extensive menu of outdoor activities, and it's the perfect spot for the kind of rejuvenating getaway Jill Ward is looking for now that she has earned her MBA and landed a new job.

America's Finest City (San Diego's moniker) is not around the corner: A connecting flight will take at least seven hours. But with a vibe that's really different from anything in Florida or other warmer climes, it's worth the trip.

Success at hitting the $1,000 mark that Ward has budgeted for is contingent on airfare. Snag a $220 sale fare, and it will be doable, although very tight. Some strategies for nailing the cheap fare:

-- Stay as far away from Easter (April 4) as possible. Many K-12 schools are out the week before Easter, so planes are fuller, and flights are more expensive.

-- Take a connecting flight. A nonstop fare to San Diego will cost at least $100 more.

-- Don't fly on a Friday or a Sunday, when fares are typically more expensive.

-- Sign up as soon as possible for fare notifications at sites such as Airfarewatchdog.com, Kayak.com, Bing.com/travel and Yapta.com. Buy as soon as a low fare hits.

-- Check Southwest.com separately for fares out of BWI. The airline's sale fares don't show up on most third-party booking sites.

-- Look for sale fares on JetBlue nonstop flights from Washington Dulles to Long Beach, Calif. It's a two-hour drive from there to San Diego, but with a nonstop flight, the travel time will be similar.

-- Be prepared to pay a few dollars extra for an early flight to San Diego to maximize your vacation time. A 6 a.m. flight with an hour-long layover should get into San Diego by 11 a.m. (The three-hour time difference is a good thing on the way out.)

Once the airfare goal is met, finding a rental car and a cheap, decent and well-located place to stay are the next hurdles.

A car is a must, as San Diego's mass transit is limited. Rental cars in San Diego are a good deal, running less than $100 including taxes for an economy car for three days. (Hotwire.com offers good rates.)

The San Diego region has many cheap chain hotels, with rates starting at $50 a night, especially in outlying cities, such as El Cajon and Chula Vista. But I'd opt for eating ramen noodles and spending the money on more centrally located accommodations.

Some of the least expensive hotels closer to the beaches and downtown San Diego are in the Hotel Circle area of Mission Valley. They include the Days Hotel (http://www.dayshotelhc.com), where three nights in late March will run about $219, including taxes. Rooms come equipped with a mini refrigerator, microwave and coffee maker, necessary items for keeping food costs down. Hotels with decent reviews located closer to the water and/or downtown are going to cost at least $100 more for three nights.

Consider renting a condo directly from an owner. While typically a bit more expensive than a hotel room, condos come with full kitchens where you could cook meals, so the total cost could wind up cheaper. For example, I found a one-bedroom in San Diego's North Park neighborhood, within walking distance of Balboa Park, for $85 a night (plus 10.5 percent taxes) at http://www.vrbo.com. Other sites to explore include http://www.homeaway.com and http://www.vacationrentals.com. Make sure the owner details all fees: An $80 cleaning bill, for example, may put you over budget.

Food will have to take a back seat to stay within budget, but excellent cheap eats include the Rubicon Deli in Mission Beach, Hodad's Burgers in Ocean Beach, the Mission in North Park and any Los Panchos Taco Shop. For the big night out, start with a fancy drink at Bertrand at Mr. A's (http://www.bertrandatmisteras.com), which offers fantastic views, and then head across the street to Cucina Urbana (http://www.sdurbankitchen.com/cucina-urbana.html), where a very nice meal for two can be had for $30. Afterward, take a walk through downtown San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter (http://www.gaslamp.org), which offers scores of clubs and bars.

Now for the daytime fun, which has to be either free or cheap -- not a problem in San Diego. It may be a bit chilly for lazing on the beach: The average high is 66 degrees in March, and the water temperatures are in the high 50s. Here are just a few ideas (go to http://www.sandiego.org for more):

-- Take a jog or a walk along the downtown San Diego waterfront, which passes in front of Seaport Village, a fun shopping area, and the convention center. Just watching the incredible yachts is entertainment.

-- Spend a day wandering around Balboa Park (http://www.balboapark.org). Museums aren't free, but there's no charge for looking at the lovely foliage and exploring the hiking trails. Pay for the San Diego Zoo (http://www.sandiegozoo.org): A one-day pass is $37, but it's worth it.

-- Rent a bike and spend at least half a day riding from Pacific Beach to Mission Beach to Mission Bay. Cost will be about $10 a person, but biking is a neat way to see the entire beach area.

-- Go to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve (http://www.torreypine.org), a wilderness area along the coast between La Jolla and Del Mar. It's $10 to park, but guided nature hikes, offered weekends and holidays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., are free. Or just pack a picnic and watch the hang gliders.

-- Spend a day in La Jolla. Watch the divers in the cove and the sea lions lazing on the beach. Splurge with a drink at Georges at the Cove (http://www.georgesatthecove.com).

-- Take a free tour of the U.S. Olympic Training Center (http://www.teamusa.org/about-usoc/chula-vista-olympic-training-ctr) in Chula Vista.

Total cost: Assuming that you score the cheap plane tickets, your hotel, air and car, including gas money, will run $753. Your night out will run $50; eight other meals, with generous doses of peanut butter and cereal, will cost $100. Zoo admission, bike rentals and a trip to Torrey Pines comes to $104. Final tally is $1,027. (Eat more ramen noodles to come in under $1,000.)

Interested in having us help plan your trip? Go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingourway.

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