SkyMall Monday: It’s my first Christmas tree, Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown Christmas Tree SkyMallToday is Cyber Monday. It’s the internet version of Black Friday. What does all this retail marketing speak mean? Well, it’s officially the holiday shopping season (with a special emphasis on the shopping). By now, your Thanksgiving leftovers have begun to spoil and your mind has replaced thoughts of turkey with lists of gifts for family, friends and coworkers. With so much emphasis on shopping, it’s easy to forget what the holidays are really about: togetherness, appreciation and, of course, fruit cake. You might find it odd for a snarky, sarcastic travel writer who was raised Jewish and then became agnostic to wax poetic about the holiday season when he’s supposed to be writing about SkyMall, but hear me out. Here in the SkyMall Monday headquarters, we just set up our Christmas tree. I love this tree. It has its origins in all the things that make this time of year so special: family, SkyMall and Charlie Brown. This week is a little bit different for SkyMall Monday. Rather than simply reviewing a product, I’d like to share with you my story of the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.As I mentioned above, I was raised Jewish. We were not a very observant family. Bacon cheeseburgers were enjoyed often and we only saw the inside of a synagogue when we were summoned to attend a bar mitzvah (including, oddly, my own) or a wedding. Sure, we’d light the menorah on Chanukah, but my extended family would gather at my aunt and uncle’s house for their annual holiday party on Christmas Eve. My aunt was Catholic, so it made sense. Also, no one had work the next day. Few offices tend to close for Chanukah and the adults usually enjoyed a fair amount of eggnog wine. My sister and I would receive our gifts on Christmas morning. Why? Well, probably so we could experience that special joy along with all the other kids around the world.

Over the years, my family evolved. My parents divorced, my father remarried and we all stopped attending my aunt and uncle’s holiday party because, well, that’s what happens with families. The holidays became far less formal. Now, I visit with my mother to exchange gifts and spoil my nieces with toys. I go to my father and stepmother’s home for dinner and exchange more gifts. All of these gatherings are done on arbitrary days selected only because everyone’s schedule is free. There’s no dressing up. No huge gatherings. Just immediate family, a new generation of children and lots of laughter. In my mind, things have improved. I’m with the people I love the most and get to spend Christmas Day in Chinatown stuffing my face.

My stepmother was raised Catholic and, as such, she and my father have a Christmas tree every year. She’s about as Catholic as we are Jewish, though, so there’s no nativity scene to be found in their house. Just plenty of holiday music and that great big tree. I’ve always cherished having that tree there. Not because it’s a symbol of Christmas or houses all of our gifts. I enjoy it simply because it means, after another long year, the people I love are together again.

Bigfoot Yeti Holiday Ornament SkyMall Christmas TreeLast year, under that very tree, was an oddly shaped, awkwardly wrapped box bearing my name. It was long, three-sided and strangely light for its size. When the time came to open our gifts, I immediately attacked that mystery package. Upon opening it, I was delighted. I was 30-years-old at the time, but easily could have been three based on my reaction. There, in my very secular hands, was a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.

That’s the very same tree that I set up this morning. The picture you see above? I took that five minutes before sitting down to write this. It’s not the musical version sold on SkyMall. The catalog used to sell the silent model that my father and stepmother bought for me but, like all things these days, even the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree has received a technological upgrade. I, however, prefer my simple tree.

It’s not really a celebration of Christmas. It’s certainly not a rejection of Chanukah or Judaism. It’s a reminder of what’s important. As you begin your holiday shopping, try to maintain some perspective about why this time of year is so special. Whatever your traditions may be, no matter how annoying your holiday travels are and regardless of your religious affiliation (including those who don’t have one at all), remember that this time of year is about family, giving thanks and Bigfoot Holiday Yeti Ornaments.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.

Hotels.com Black Friday and Cyber Monday hotel deals

hotel dealsStill thinking about ways to get away this holiday season? One of the best things about the Thanksgiving holiday is what comes after – Black Friday and Cyber Monday. To help buyers celebrate, Hotels.com will launch one of their biggest sales of the year during the busiest shopping weekend of the year.

In addition to 50 percent off nightly room rates, the first 500 hotels.com customers who book the Hotels.com® 4-Day Sale and use code “4DAY” will receive a Flip™ Ultra camcorder.

The Hotels.com 4-Day Sale goes live at midnight on November 26 and ends at 11:59 p.m. CST on November 29. Some Black Friday and Cyber Monday hotel deals include:

The Hard Rock Hotel Chicago: The hotel is located in the center of Chicago Loop and close to the shopping district on Michigan Avenue. This four-star property has rates as low as $134 a night and is just one block from the Chicago Theatre and Grant Park.

Hotel Erwin, Venice, California:

Some of the best one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants can be found in Venice, California. With rates starting at $239 a night, the property is within two miles of fantastic shopping in Santa Monica and Marina del Rey. The hotel’s open-air rooftop lounge, High, provides panoramic views of the beach and Los Angeles

Le Meridian, Dallas:

The four-star Le Meridian in Dallas has weekend room rates starting at just $79 a night. Conveniently located across from Galleria Dallas, where signature stores, dining venues and an ice-skating rink are sure to bide your time, the Le Meridian is a perfect spot to stay while you shop for cowboy boots, bling and 10-gallon hats for the entire family.

Five chilling facts about Cyber Monday Shopping

cyber mondayOkay, your goal should be NOT to conform to what you see below. The travel industry, riding something of a recovery this year, is set to come out with some solid sales on Cyber Monday, the biggest online shopping day of the year. So, as you click among hotel, airline and online travel agency sites, it will pay for you to be aware of the biggest risks you face.

Despite the many risks associated with online shopping – and the fact that they have been shoved in the public’s face since the early days of internet commercialization – people still roll the dice with their financial security. When you get excited about cheap tickets or a real bargain on the excursion of a lifetime, take a moment to make sure you aren’t getting scammed. Your savviest purchase may be the one you never make.

So, what are the risks? Let’s take a look at five scary facts from web security firm Webroot:1. Don’t trust page one: a high placement in Google search results shouldn’t be a sign of trust. According to Webroot, 59 percent of survey respondents trust the results they get in the first few pages, up from 39 percent last year. Unfortunately, this placement is “a target for malicious links.” Interestingly, the number of people using search engines is falling: “48 percent of online shoppers frequently if not always use search engines to find gifts online, compared to 52 percent in 2009,” Webroot reports.

Solution: Watch brand. If you recognize the company’s brand, you can be more comfortable with the purchase. Also, watch where the link sends you. For an extra layer of protection, enter the company’s address into the browser yourself instead of clicking the link in Google.

2. Risky wifi behavior: 18 percent of shoppers are likely to use public wifi for holiday shopping, Webroot reports, up from 12 percent in 2009. This can be risky, especially with 23 percent of respondents feeling comfortable using free public wifi.

Solution: Do your online shopping at home or at work. Stealing wifi from your neighbor so you can toss your credit card number onto the web is probably pretty stupid.

3. New site, new password: are you planning to jump on a deal from a company you haven’t used before? Well, this is the point of many of the Cyber Monday travel deals you’ll see: companies want to lure you away from your ol’ stand-by sites. Do take advantage of the hot promotions, but be smart. Using the same password everywhere is like hiding a house key under your doormat.

Solution: Use a new password every time you create an account with a travel website. Also, be one of the 72 percent of online shoppers who uses a “complex” password – i.e., a mix of letters, numbers and symbols.

4. Social should be personal: 26 percent of respondents to the Webroot survey indicated that someone else had used their social media or email accounts to send friends messages in their names. With travel companies increasingly turning to social media platforms to market their deals and bolster their brands, expect a lot more interaction this year … which brings hefty doses of risk with it.

Solution: Take a look at your sent messages from time to time, and look at your Twitter stream from the perspective of another user. Make sure you recognize everything you’re putting out into the world.

5. Look for safety: 52 percent of Webroot’s respondents don’t check to see if a site uses SSL, and 50 percent don’t look for the padlock in the lower right corner of the web browser. This is like not twisting the doorknob after you lock it.

Solution: pay attention to where you make purchases online. In addition to getting comfortable with the company website, you also want to be aware of the security in place. If something feels off, play it safe: don’t buy. No deal is worth the consequences of risky online purchasing behavior.

[Via Insurance Information Institute, photo by InfoMofo via Flickr]

Five ways to protect your wallet on Cyber Monday

Cyber Monday is around the corner, and the travel business is getting ready to hit you up with some great deals. If all goes as planned for them, you’ll rush to pry open your wallet and book your next trip at a fantastic discount. Ready? Well, not so fast …

There are a lot of other people who want access to your credit card, too. But, they don’t want to give you anything in return. The scammers will be out in full force, and it’s incumbent upon you to protect yourself.

Jeff Horne, threat research director at web security company Webroot, has a few ideas for how you can keep your cash safe on Cyber Monday – and all the time, frankly. Let’s take a look at five recommendations from a guy who’s in the business of knowing what the online bad guys are up to:
Horne recommends the following actions:1. Horse’s mouth: don’t click a link to make a purchase. Instead, go straight to the site. This will protect you from the risks associated with malicious links. If an airline, hotel or online travel agent offers up a deal, just go straight to the company to buy it.

2. Password discipline: don’t use your mom’s maiden name on every site where you have an account. Mix it up a bit to add some protection for your online shopping activity.

3. Pay attention: Horne suggests looking for the “signs of security,” such as “https” in the address bar. Make sure that the travel company is putting some security measures in place to protect you. In addition to keeping the thieves at bay, it also shows that a company is interested in taking care of you, making it worthy of your purchase and your loyalty.

4. Choose carefully: use a credit card instead of a debit card to stop payments immediately if something goes awry. Also, your risk will be limited to available credit, rather than the entirety of your bank account. PayPal users: monitor the account from which PayPal draws to make sure it isn’t compromised.

5. ‘Tis the season: if you get a “confirmation” email that doesn’t have a tracking number, delete it. If you aren’t sure about whether a purchase has been confirmed, go back to the travel site where you made it and view your order history.

[Via Insurance Information Institute, photo by TheTruthAbout via Flickr]

Cyber Monday: not just for retailers any more

After four days off, the world will slide behind its desks again on Monday morning. They’ll try to get back into the swing of work life, but it won’t be immediate. So, as they ease back into productivity, many will push into the shopping world they dodged three days earlier on Black Friday. The hotels will be waiting for them, with more than 60 of them pushing deals to try to get in on the holiday shopping action.

Around 69 million people are expected to jump into the Cyber Monday fray, with workers aged 18 to 24 seen as the most likely to shop at work. Overall, 54 percent of people with internet access at work will start to take care of their holiday season obligations on Monday.

According to a Shop.org survey, 87 percent of the retailers surveyed plan to get deals out in front of online consumers this holiday season, up a tad from last year’s 83 percent. So, it’ll be tough for the hotels to stand out, but this won’t keep them from trying.

Fifty of Starwood‘s resorts will be offering deals during a three-day sale that starts on Monday, with discounts of up to 45 percent. But, you’ll need to travel between the beginning of January and the end of April. Seven Affinia Hotels properties are offering 15% off a 2010 stay at properties in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The James Hotel in Chicago is offering a 100% bonus on gift cards purchased.