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In San Diego, Dodging El Nino on the Cheap

By Carol Sottili
Sunday, January 4, 1998; Page E02


I sat glued to the Weather Channel, watching in horror as the various weather personalities gleefully announced the impending arrival of the first official El Nino storm to the coast of California. Heavy winds, high surf, coastal flooding, inches of rain -- the entire shebang was forecast to hit San Diego on the same day as our planned arrival for a long-anticipated, heavily planned three-day mini-vacation there.

Friends and family tut-tutted in sympathy, although several seemed to take a dark pleasure in calling to make sure I'd heard about El Nino's scheduled appearance. My children started to whine about monsoons. My husband discreetly inquired whether the hotel had Spectravision.

But a call to Continental Airlines confirmed my worst fears -- it would cost $75 per ticket to change our reservations, or $300 for us four. When you're paying just $99 each way per person, an extra $300 doesn't go down very well. I packed the rain gear.

The Air Fare: I'm afraid that my job is starting to cost me money. While researching Fly Buys, the Travel section's column listing bargain air fares, I'd come upon a deal to San Diego that I just couldn't pass up. Southwest was offering $99 each way, and major carriers were matching. Yes, we'd have to wake up at 4 a.m. and drive more than an hour to Baltimore/ Washington International Airport, and, yes, we'd have to make it quick because we didn't want to take Steve and Merry out of school for too long. But still, for less than $800, all four of us could visit the town where my kids were born. I booked the flights.

The Hotel: Finding a hotel to accommodate a family of four, including children nearly as big as the adults, was no easy task. We're past the point of cramming into one room. Most hotel rooms in decent locations cost a minimum of $150 a night. Double that for two rooms and the cost comes to $300 a night plus tax. Suddenly, the great air fare didn't seem so great. Hours on the Internet yielded few choices. But perseverance paid off. One Internet booking site ( was offering a two-room suite with kitchen at a Holiday Inn Express just a few blocks from the beach in La Jolla for $109 a night, including breakfast. I booked it.

The Car: While researching car rental rates, I quickly learned that each agency offers literally hundreds of rate levels. If you just pick up the phone and call any agency without giving it some sort of discount booking code, you're paying too much. Even if you aren't a member of AAA and you don't qualify for any other discount cards, you can get discount coupons from many agency Internet sites. Using a discount card, we rented a Pontiac Grand Am from National for $27.99 a day, including unlimited mileage. The Internet Travel Network ( was offering cars from no-name agencies a short shuttle ride from the airport starting at $17.99 a day for a subcompact.

The Trip: The kids wanted to do Sea World and the zoo. My husband, Bud, and I wanted to see old friends, walk along the beach and eat good Mexican food. All of us prayed that El Nino would take a hike.

With a three-hour time difference and a 6:30 a.m. departure, we landed in San Diego in time to spend the day at the zoo. As we landed, the runway was wet but the sun was shining. The day brought showers, sun, showers, sun. The animals were positively frisky, the humans nonexistent. We had the giant pandas to ourselves.

Sunday was spent at the beach and with friends. At La Jolla Cove, the dozens of harbor seals dozing and body-surfing, pelicans diving for fish and ground squirrels scrambling up and down the cliffs were as amusing as the zoo animals, plus admission was free. While the adults lingered over brunch at the beachfront Sea Lodge at La Jolla Shores, the kids ran along the beach, whipping one another with seaweed and getting soaked in the Nino-warmed Pacific.

Monday, the final day of our trip, it was Bud's turn to get soaked as he tried to get in an early-morning run along the Pacific Beach boardwalk. But, again, the sun valiantly subdued the showers, and wind and by noon, the storm had headed inland. We had Sea World to ourselves. We watched J.J., the rescued baby gray whale, as he rose again and again out of the water in what looked like an attempt to see Shamu, the killer whale in the next tank. With few visitors to buy them food, the usually satiated manta rays gobbled chunks of squid from the children's hands. And we waltzed right in to the new Wild Arctic ride, which commonly sports a long line.

Tuesday morning, we boarded the plane back home. That night, Dan Rather told us the first official El Nino storm had dumped upward of six inches of rain just 100 miles north of where we'd stayed and was now headed toward Detroit, where it would cause a major snowstorm. But El Nino had merely kissed San Diego, chasing away crowds, giving us more rainbows than we'd seen in a decade, and warming the Pacific enough for a quick dip. I'll take that kind of well-behaved child any day.

Entrance fees at Sea World (Sea World Drive at Interstate 5) are $34.95 per adult and $26.95 for children ages 3-11. Information: 619-226-3901 or Entrance fees at the San Diego Zoo (Zoo Drive in Balboa Park) are $15 per adult and $6 for children ages 6-11. Information: 619-234-3153 or

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