Tag Archives: San Diego

The Priceline Experience

Now, I can make my final judgment on our recent experiment using priceline.com to book our hotels.

A brief recap:

  • We decided to book our hotel(s) on a San Diego trip via Priceline’s name your price program.
  • We bid for 3 nights at a minimum 3-star hotel at $75 per night – fully expecting to be rejected
  • We “won” the bid, to our delight at the Woodfin San Diego.
  • We decided we could afford another night at that rate and attempted to extend the day an additional day at the same rate.
  • Priceline could not match the $75 and instead was able to offer $116. We decided to decline.
  • We thought we’d be clever and tried to extend the stay the other direction and arrive one day earlier.
  • Having already bid on an extension at the end, Priceline would not allow us to try to arrive earlier, either.
  • We decided to bid separately for another night, knowing it would be at a different hotel.
  • We again bid $75, but this time chose only 4-star hotels.
  • Again to our surprise (and even greater delight) we got a room at the Omni San Diego.

Actually, before we attempted to extend the stay at the Woodfin, we checked the place out online. The hotel seemed just fine, and we noted that most of the rooms at the hotel were actually suites with a bedroom, living room with sofa bed and kitchenette. We inquired with the hotel and learned we could “upgrade” for $20 more a night. The kitchenette meant could prepare our own breakfasts and save nearly $20 each day, and a sofa bed for the kids wouldn’t go amiss.

We took that into account before we bid on the extension, so, in essence, we were prepared to pay a total of $95 per night (still cheap by San Diego room rates available online.) That meant that the $116 became $136 and that was just out-of-bounds.

The hotel itself was perfectly acceptable. It was clean, quiet and close to several of the places we wanted to go. It was also close to fast food and other restaurants, a Fresh & Easy for shopping and a park where we took the kids to play in the evening.

We were never troubled in any way by staff or other guests. There was the fire alarm incident, but you can’t hold anyone to blame for things like that.

If I had any criticism of the it might be that one evening we called and asked for extra towels and they said housekeeping would bring them up and they never did.

Priceline Experience 1: Woodfin San Diego. Good price, good room, no complaints. If this is an example of the typical Priceline experience (especially if you don’t go trying to change things after you’ve started) then it’s all recommended by me.

Now, on to the Omni San Diego…

Largely what you might expect from the Omni would be a top-class hotel, and indeed it was in every way. The facilities were immaculate and well designed. The staff were all friendly, efficient and almost comically eager to please. I described elsewhere how they found Sawyer the Cat for us. The hotel also provides a toy bag for each child staying in the hotel. the bag, somewhat mysteriously, also contains a kazoo. Who in their right mind would give a kazoo to kids in a hotel?

Being just an “ordinary” room with two beds, we didn’t have nearly as much space as we did at the Woodfin, but it was more luxurious (I’m not sure that’s quite the right word but it will have to do.)

The stay wasn’t quite as uneventful as at the Woodfin. The first night (and remember, we were only booked for one) there was a room party of some kind 2 doors down. It didn’t sound exactly like a big party, but the music was a bit loud (enough to come through the walls from two rooms down) and two or three children kept running out of the room, slamming the door, and running up and down the hotel corridor every few minutes.

Unfortunately, the doors to the room opened inwards, and I was unable to swing it open and give them an “accidental” face full of door as they passed our room over and over. They quieted down by 10:00PM. That’s a little late when you’ve got small children going to bed at 8:30, but not excessively, so I hadn’t reached the point where I would call the hotel. Either they voluntarily shut down before I decided to call, or the hotel shut them down.

Despite that, we decided on the first night that we were going to test Priceline again and try to stay yet another night. We realized we wouldn’t get the kids to the beach if we didn’t add a day.

Here’s another restriction we learned about Priceline: You can only extend a stay by the same number of day (or less) of the original bid. In other words, we could have attempted to extend the stay at the Woodfin up to three more nights, but we could only try to extend the stay at the Omni by one night. This was no problem because we only wanted one night, but it’s good to know for future reference.

We weren’t hopeful we’d get an extension. We were scheduled to depart on Friday morning, and so we’d be trying to book into a weekend slot, which is no doubt busier and normally more expensive.

Once again, Priceline couldn’t get a $75 extension, but came up with $94, which we felt was reasonable enough to accept.

Indeed, the next day the hotel was noticeably livelier. It turns out that the Omni is next door to Petco ballpark. Sadly, they don’t play cricket there, but instead that baseball game that’s all the rage in this country, and there was a game Friday night, so the whole area was packed, and, from our window, we could watch the left fielder (cow corner) play ball.

So, the Omni itself was just about perfect. Just about. My complaint? I think the complaint is more about Priceline. It’s hidden costs… the Omni charges $30 per night for their parking (which is valet only.) That would have effectively bumped our $75 per night room to $105, or a 40% increase over what we bided and accepted.

We parked at a garage across the street for less than the $30, but that was still an unexpected additional cost “gotcha.” At no point in the Priceline bid process do you have any opportunity to specify any form of minimum requirements such as “free parking.”

So, Priceline Experience 2: Omni San Diego. Great price, but hidden costs. Exceptional experience otherwise.

In conclusion

Overall I’m quite pleased with the Priceline experience. It reduced our costs down so much that we were actually able to take a short vacation, which we had pretty much concluded was not going to be able to happen this year due to finances. In fact, that worked so well, we were able to take a two-day longer vacation than we originally planned.

I would; however, take from this a couple of lessons.

The first is to be wary of hidden costs, and plan accordingly. I don’t know any way you prevent them from happening based on the system they’ve got and I don’t know how often these things happen. I’m sure that 99.9% of all hotels in California have free parking, so this was just “one of those things” but it does seem like it might need to be taken into account.

The second is to go with the 4 star hotels and bid low, really low. The same room we got at $75, booked online at the Omni’s website costs $219 per night – but includes “complimentary valet parking for one car per night”.

Third, plan your vacation a lot better than we did. Figure out exactly how many nights you’re going to stay, in advance, and stick to it. Even if you have to say to yourself, “We’ll stay five nights if we can get $75 and only four if it is over $90…” etc, and then bid accordingly. Save any further thoughts of extending your stay until you’re in the room.

Next domestic trip, I can assure you, we will be using Priceline to book our rooms.

Fuzzy Kittens

I recognize that my previous post was a bit of a rant, but, I can assure you, dear reader, that had it written it immediately after the event, it would have been positively vitriolic, even by my standards. As it was, it still took three complete re-writes (from scratch) before I thought it down to PG-13 level.

To help soften things up a bit, I thought I’d tell this tale of a fuzzy little kitten, named Sawyer.

Sawyer is a stuffed cat. Not a stuffed previously-live cat, but a stuffed toy cat. He is a fluffy white toy given to my daughter when she was very young by a friend. The cat is very soft and droopy. it’s also permanently positioned in a reclining, lying-on-the-side resting repose. It looks, for all the world, like a dead cat lying along the side of the road.

I named him Sawyer long before Michelle could talk. Someday, I suppose, she’ll get the Tom Sawyer reference. The name has stuck, but quite often she just calls it, “kitty.” That could be a genetic throw-back to my dad, who named every cat we had some variation of “puss” or “kitty”.

We left the hotel for the beach and, with a little persuading, got the kids to leave their toys behind in the room. They’d no doubt get lost or destroyed at the beach.

Later that day, when we returned, nobody really noticed that Sawyer was gone.

The next morning; however, Michelle was in fits being unable to find the cat. We searched the room with no luck. All the other stuffed animals that had been in the same place were still there, so we concluded that Michelle had taken Sawyer the car in the afternoon/evening. The car was parked in a garage across the street and as we were getting packed up to leave, I headed across to search the car. Sawyer wasn’t there.

I knew a storm would be brewing. Michelle can be very emotional about such things and Sawyer would be her first lost “major” stuffed toy.

I stopped by the front desk, working on the slightest possible chance that she’d dropped Sawyer in a hallway or the elevators, and, to their credit, they made a bit of a production out of checking with their housekeeping and such. They checked their logs and asked around, but alas, Sawyer was gone.

Michelle freaked out. We did our best to convince her that everyone was doing everything they could to find Sawyer, but we knew in our hearts he was gone. We knew that she must have dropped him somewhere, but she continued to insist that she’d left Sawyer in the room and that someone had taken him.

We explained that the only people in the room would have been housekeeping, and they wouldn’t take Sawyer. There were other stuffed animals and even electronic equipment in the room. If they’d been thieves, they wouldn’t have taken Sawyer.

As we were preparing to leave, the head of housekeeping called our room. They had found a white cat, that had been scooped with all the white comforters, sheets and towels the day before and it was found as it was being prepared for the laundry.

Yes, it was Sawyer, and Michelle was overjoyed to have her kitty back.

And that is the heartwarming tale of Sawyer the cat and the staff of the Omni, who get a lot of points in my book for saving a little girl’s fuzzy kitten.

San Diego – Day Five – Our Fate was Sealed

Sometimes people need to learn to pull their heads out of their butts.

Personally, I’ve had to hold back this narrative of our last full day in San Diego because of how pissed off I get every time I sat down to write it. I’m just going to divorce myself from commenting on it in any detail.

The kids wanted to go to the beach. Fair enough, I’m told there’s one of those ocean things near San Diego, and in some places that sand stuff gets washed ashore. The children are not particularly strong strong swimmers in a swimming pool. In a moving body of water, they have to be considered strictly non-swimmers. A quick google looking for “best kids beach near San Diego” quickly hit upon something that sounded perfect. A beach with a man-made break water designed to make a calm, safe place for kids to go. Known as the “Children’s Pool Beach” – you couldn’t get a more perfect description of what I was looking for.

And so we went to La Jolla, where we discovered that a bunch of frickin’ seals, who apparently also think that beach is a great place to take their children thanks to the man-made breakwater, have taken residence in the area.

It seems that allowing those nasty human children on the beach (must I remind you? that was built for them) disturbs the seals. To help further the goal of breaking down the very fabric of human civilization, a group of dedicated crackpot, whack-a-loons…. (sorry, I promised not to editorialize)… concerned idiots… (nope, try again) fucktards (Yeah, that’s the word I wanted, “fucktards”) have seemingly setup a vigil to stop people from using the beach.

The city has been forced to put up official signs (I noticed the other beaches didn’t have them.) that say, in effect, “This public beach is for the public use at any time.” It has the same tone to it as the Los Angeles airport’s continual PA announcements that say, “You don’t have give money to any panhandling, religious nutjob organization begging for money in this airport at any time.” The signs are clearly in response to a chronic, ongoing problem with harassment.

You don’t have to look far to find it. The seal fucktards have erected signs all over the place, craftily worded to make it sound like you’re not allowed to go on the beach. Result of their efforts: No one was on the beach, not man nor beast, just lots of parents with their expectant children standing up at the top of the cliffs, looking longingly down on the inviting, yet stubbornly empty beach and the calm, placid waters beyond.

I have nothing against seals. I mean, what’s not to like about seals? They’re furry, cute, cuddly (until one decides to kill you) and they juggle and play the bicycle horn a lot better than I do. It’s seal fucktards I don’t care for. If a swarm of mosquitoes infested their children’s schools (assuming these people can even procreate) they’d demand them to be eliminated. (The mosquitos, not the children, although I wouldn’t put it past some of them to even get that backwards.)

If a great white shark had setup patrol in the children’s pool beach, they’d be all for getting rid of it. (Not because of the danger to children, of course, but because it might eat the seals), but apparently we can’t run the seals off from a man-made beach designed for children.

There’s a word for that kind of “conservationist”: (in addition to “fucktard”, that is) hypocrite.

And so we, and all the other parents, gave a small victory to the seal fucktards and moved on to another beach which wasn’t nearly as nice. (Bitter? I’m not bitter.)

(As an aside, I’ve done a bit of further research on this beach thing and have discovered that it’s quite a hot debate – go figure, some people have nothing better to do. They should start blogs instead. May I suggest blogs.fucktard,net? In any case, it seems the courts came to the right decision and ordered the city of San Diego to force the seals off the beach, but that’s been stalled by headline-desperate politicians, bean counters and… well, a damned stupid idea of dispersing the seals by playing recordings of dogs barking at the beach from sunrise to sunset for years to come. As I said, some serious head-from-butt-ectomies need to be performed.)

After a not-as-carefree-as-it-should-have-been day at the beach, we headed towards the Dumpling Inn, a somewhat famous local establishment serving northern chinese style dumplings, potstickers and the like. I could have eaten a couple more trays of their potstickers. They were really quite good.

IMG_6501 We finished the day staying close to the hotel and a Cinderella carriage ride around the Seaport Village, which Michelle really wanted to do. Well, how could a father refuse his little princess such a small thing?

San Diego – Day Four – We’re Movin’ On Up!

It was goodbye to the 3-star Woodfin today and hello to the 4-star Omni San Diego. I’ll relate more about the ultimate Priceline experience later, suffice it to say the Omni is a nicer hotel, right next to the Gaslamp district and the convention center – for less money per night.

We got out of the Woodfin by 8:15AM, knowing full well that we couldn’t check into the Omni until after 3:00PM. As the Omni is near the zoo, today’s main destination, we decided to see if we could leave our luggage at the hotel until check-in time. The idea of leaving all our luggage in the parking lot at Balboa Park all day didn’t sit well with me. However, we were in luck as the Omni checked us in early and we were in our room by 9:00AM.

This was followed by a better part of the day at the San Diego Zoo, which is, entirely consistent with their worldwide reputation, still one of the best in the world. Although, being that the Wild Animal Park we saw yesterday is their breeding program facility – there’s a lot of duplication between the two. I was well and truly “zooed out” by the end of the visit.

A recent change to the park rules prevented us from brining our own food, so we decided to get out shortly after 1:00PM to get (another) late lunch.

By 2:00 we’d arrived at the San Diego Chicken Pie Shop. This was a restaurant that was within walking distance of our hotel back a few years ago, but we never went there. Largely because it seemed so weird and was an almost complete non-entity on the internet. We couldn’t figure out what the place really was. Was it nothing but chicken pot pies? Or was it something else? or something more?

This time, although they still seem to eschew joining the internet era, we were able to determine that there’d be food for everyone in the family and we decided to give it a try.

What an interesting place! it’s been a San Diego fixture for over 70 years – yes, seventy years. Their menu hasn’t changed much, either. Prices are up, but still very cheap compared to other San Diego restaurants. Rather than being an emporium of dozens of different chicken pies, they have only one: Chicken, turkey and gravy in a pie. They also serve other old-style family restaurant staples, like chicken-fried steak, chicken noodle soup, mashed potatoes and various homemade (dessert) pies. Nothing spectacular, but good, solid, filing and cheap.

After lunch it was back to Balboa park and the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center. The kids had a blast at the science center. It’s tiny compared to the science center in Phoenix but oh-so-much superior in every way that matters. With a floor filed with hands on experiments that emphasize doing rather than reading, it was more like a playground, which children enjoying themselves everywhere. it was clearly very popular with the locals.

I’ve documented my gripes about the Phoenix Science Center before, and this just re-affirms them in my mind. What really was driven home to me was that I’ve never been a big fan of science fairs. Most science fair projects that I’ve seen consist largely of one of those three-piece folded bits of foam-core board, with artwork, perhaps a few charts photos,narrative, maybe a button and light or two or a plant in a dish. It is precisely what you’d expect of a 10-year-old putting together a presentation. What I’ve realized about the Phoenix Science Center is that most of the exhibits are exactly at that level – they’re just professionally constructed. Since many of them are supplied by “sponsors” of the museum, I can’t help but wonder if these exhibits literally are just science fair exhibits from the sponsors’ employees’ children’s projects that have been re-built by the sponsor.

Perhaps you might think the “playful” exhibits aren’t educational enough? Let me respond by saying that more than once I heard both my children and others’ children playing with one of the exhibits and using the phrase that tells me they are a complete success: “How does it do that?” That’s what I want from a science center – to fire the curiosity and inspire the desire to inquire… (ouch, that was a bit overdone on the alliteration, wasn’t it?)

Back at the hotel, we decided that one night simply wasn’t enough and we used Priceline to try to extend our stay at the Omni another day. Although we couldn’t get $75 for another night, we got $96 and that was good enough for us to book it for another night.

Yelp and the iPhone lead us to The Kebob Shop for dinner which was within walking distance of the hotel and delicious!

San Diego – Day Three – When Animals Get Wild!

Day three brought us to the San Diego Zoo Wild Animal Park.

Which constitutes a lot of walking and driving around looking at animals. ’nuff said.

Afterwards we explored the area, bought some “fresh” california produce from a roadside stand and stopped at Famer Boys Hamburgers, for a decent, if unremarkable late lunch.

That put us, unfortunately, at what is commonly called “an inopportune time” to be crossing town: rush hour.

We dodged into a nearby mall to kill some time. What we found was an Apple Store. Inside, I discovered that they had released a “Mac/iPhoto” edition of the EyeFi Wireless SD card, which not only uploads your photos wirelessly to you computer, but geotags them using the skyhook method. It’s a little expensive for a 2GB SD card, but I decided (after having spent last evening manually geotagging yesterday’s photos) that it might be a valuable addition to our vacation enjoyment.

(Typically, when I’m out and planning on geotagging, as was did today, I take my Garmin GPS and run it all day while I’m out and about. When I offload the pictures at the end of the day, I use HoudahGeo to synchronize the GPS track log and geotag all my photos. It works pretty well, but it would still be better if the photos were tagged as they were taken.)

We got back to the hotel room and I tried to setup the EyeFi card. That’s where the problems began.

The EyeFi card doesn’t quite work the way I expected. I had assumed (somewhat incorrectly) that the device communicated wirelessly with your computer, but rather it’s a device attached to your wireless network. Perhaps if I explain the setup the problem will become more obvious. I’ll stress here that the problem wasn’t with the EyeFi card, but with the resources I had available to me and my hopes of getting the card working for the rest of the trip.

The Woodfin San Diego, that we’re staying at, has wired internet in the rooms, for which they charge $6 a day. Yesterday, I signed up for two days’ worth, since we’ll be leaving tomorrow early. I thought I’d be clever (I’ve done this before) and I brought my Airport Express, which I connected to the wired network, and then connected to with my MacBook. As with most of these places, upon first use of the web you’re presented with the hotels terms and conditions plus, in this case, the ability to purchase internet access. I had expected that this would properly activate the internet for any device (such as my iPhone as well as my MacBook) over the wireless network, but it didn’t work out that way. Only the MacBook was authorized. A pity, but not a real problem – or so I thought. I continued to use the Airport Express because it was more convenient to be able to haul the computer around.

Along come the EyeFi card.

The EyeFi comes with a card reader (required for setup and handy, since I didn’t bring one with me). You plug the card and reader into the Mac and you load the software that is embedded on the SD card. The EyeFi software fires up on the Mac, you register an account with them (over the internet) and then you’re ready to initialize the card.

Problem: The card cannot be initialized without reaching their servers over the net, and it must do so wirelessly through your network, not using the computer’s pre-existing connection to EyeFi’s servers. This cannot be done on networks that force you to an agreement page, so I was stuck.

Next bright idea: I’d switch my MacBook to using the wired connection and then share my internet over the MacBook’s wireless. I’d then reconfigure the EyeFi setup to use the shared network instead of the Airport Express. That didn’t fly because the hotel network recognized the MacBook over the wired connection to be a different machine and forced me to pay for more internet, which I’m not going to do.

My hopes of using the EyeFi tomorrow are dashed, but hopefully the “complimentary” internet at the Omni will allow me to set it up just in time for our return drive to Phoenix.

For dinner we went to a strange little place called Jollibee, a Philippine-based fast food chain that specializes in hamburgers, fried chicken, spaghetti and a local rice/shrimp dish.

Irene ate some of James’ spaghetti and nostalgically said it tasted “…just like spaghetti did when I was growing up (in Taiwan)”. The fried chicken also had a familiar, “back home” taste to her. I was impressed, it was easily the hottest, most spicy fried chicken I’ve ever had. Curious place, and it was frequented by quite a few people who looked to be Filipinos. Pity they don’t have any in Arizona.

San Diego – Day Two – We Lost Our Son at LegoLand

Getting out fairly early, after a breakfast of toaster waffles, we headed towards Legoland, which is 20-30 miles north of our hotel. First we had to stop at a nearby (to LegoLand) outlet mall and pick up our three-day passes to San Diego’s major attractions. While we were there I stopped, for the very first time, at Hot Dog on a Stick. Although I love corn dogs, and their name is fairly explanitory of what they sell, I was still rather surprise at their limited menu. Hot dog on a stick, cheese on a stick, hot dog on a bun, lemonade, fries… yep, that’s it. And they were turkey dogs to boot.

It was almost lunchtime and my justification for stopping for a snack was that food prices in theme parks are frequently akin to rape… and not just rape, but prison rape. My hope was to last through the day and then proceed to Shakey’s Pizza afterwards. (More on that later.)

LegoLand is… well, what can I say? It’s an amusement park, mostly just rides for smaller children (2-12) with lots of Lego statues. Their artwork is impressive – but I feel if I had access to an unlimited number of every Lego ever made, I could probably make an elephant, too.IMG_6378

I’m not very impressed by how the park is run, and I can give two examples. Although every ride has height requirement and they are posted at each ride; however, for some reason they don’t work very well. I saw no fewer than five instances where children (and their parents) were turned back at the boarding of the ride. Height requirements were enforced strictly at the last possible moment. The displays at the beginning of the line look like they ought to be clear, but at one point even we were scratching our heads over what the requirements were.

Considering how devastated the children who were turned away were, perhaps a re-think of their system is in order.

Second example: Children get easily lost in some of the play areas. There are large playgrounds where the parents and children enter, the children can play, the parents can watch, but in some places, the children can exit the playground out of sight of the parents.

In the first case, I saw a young asian girl (maybe 3 or 4) come down a ladder/slide thing that lead to the outside of the play area. Her guardian was obviously still inside, probably on the ground floor. Who would expect an exit on the second floor? The child popped out, looked around and had no clue how to get back into the play area, she headed off. At first she seemed to know where she was going. I kept watching her as she soon started to look worried, then started crying.

I got up to go help her when a woman came up to her and started holding her hand. Not her mother – just a kindly stranger noticing a child in distress. She hadn’t seen her come out of the playground, so I went to her to tell her where the child came from. They got her back to her mother – who never saw her leave the play area.

Second instance, different playground, same scenario, different child – ours. There’s a large playground with lots of ladders and climbing things and slides. The parents can come along, but not all the parts are suitable for adults. There are alternate paths up and down for the parents and kids. Michelle and James went up (to a third lever) to come down the slides and only Michelle came down.

I ran up, James wasn’t there. I ran back down, James still hadn’t come down. Then I look through the playground (we are standing at the back) and see a woman walking James towards the exit. He is crying. I shout to him, but he can’t hear me. I also can’t get to him because you have to go all the way around the playground to get there. Apparently there is another slide that leads to the opposite side of the playground.

I run around the front, pushing slow, old women with strollers out of the way and get to the front – they’re not there. I run to the guy “guarding” the entrance. I say to him, “I just saw a woman walking my son towards this exit. He may have gotten lost. Did she bring him to you?”

“No, what did he look like?”

“Small boy, four years old, brown hair.”

“Nah, I didn’t see anything. What kind of clothes was he wearing?”

“Blue shirt, pants, white hat.”

“What type of hat?”

“White, Gilligan hat.”

“Were his pants long or shorts?”

“Ummmmm, actually, I’m not sure.”

Now, mind you, he’s not the slightest bit concerned or even giving any impression that this is something he should even really give a rat’s ass about.

Just about then a woman (“the” woman) comes up behind me and says, “Was his name James?” After I confirm she says, “He went back in there. He seemed lost and I tried to help him but he wouldn’t let me take him anywhere.” She pointed in the direction he went and there he was.

Case solved, but I ask myself, “Would the LegoLand employee have actually tried to do anything?” The playground was designed in such a way as it was easy for him to go down a completely wrong direction, and then it was not easy to get from the front to the back. What if he’d tried to wander out of the area? Would the Lego Guy have stopped him? Are there even any basic controls in place to stop children from leaving the play area unattended?

The whole place seemed rather lacksidasical.

…and then we got hungry and had to eat. 2 slices of pizza, 1 salad, 1 cup of fruit, 4 breadsticks, 4 sodas…. Over $40!

Otherwise, LegoLand… ehhhhh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not too keen on amusement parks to begin with.

So it was off to the highlight of the day: Shakey’s Pizza!