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

Today 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.

Last 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. Black Friday and Cyber Monday hotel deals

Still 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, 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 customers who book the® 4-Day Sale and use code “4DAY” will receive a Flip™ Ultra camcorder.

The 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

Okay, 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]

12 Cyber Monday hotel deals you won’t want to miss

There are two types of Thanksgiving deal finders: Those who take a quick cat nap after Thanksgiving dinner so they can be in line super early for Black Friday shopping, and those who wait out the weekend then pounce on Cyber Monday sales. In the retail world, we call this power of purchase. In the hotels world, this type of consumer behavior is known as impulse shopping, and the hotels are more than happy to aid to your impulse.

Cyber Monday deals are no secret to smart shoppers, but we wrangled up 12 of the best hotel Cyber Monday deals you won’t want to miss. From New York to Costa Rica, get your fingers ready (and your credit card out) for some fast bookings:

1. Copley Square Hotel: This little boutique hotel in Boston just received it’s four-stars and is planning to celebrate with a Cyber Monday special. Book a boutique room for $129 for a Boutique Room or a Deluxe Room for $149. The deal is valid from Nov. 29, 2010 – March 31, 2011, for all dates except New Year’s Eve.

2. Westin St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands: Starwood’s Cyber Monday Sale is a brand-wide event, but we like this one in particular for its location. Head to St. John from Jan. 1- April 30, 2011, and stay a t the Westin St. John for $289 per night – a 35% discount off regular starting rates. For reservations use rate code CYBERLTO.

3. The Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club: The historic 85-year old resort in St. Petersburg, FL, will offer a discount of 30% off the best available rate for those who book online on Cyber Monday (Nov. 29, 2010) using booking code DOD. The offer is valid for stays through Jan. 8, 2011. Rates start at $112 per night.4. Broadway Hotel & Hostel, New York City: Book rooms at 15% off the best available rate on the property’s private and semi-private guest rooms. Using rate code CYBER, the offer is valid for booking Nov. 29 – Dec. 3 for stays through March 31, 2011.

5. Marrakech Hotel, New York: Guests who book two or three nights at the Marrakech Hotel, a Moroccan-themed hotel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, will save 15% off best available rates when booking with rate code CYBER. Those who stay four nights or more can enjoy a 20% discount using the special Cyber Monday code. Booking is available Nov. 29 – Dec. 3, 2010 for visits Dec. 19, 2010 – March 31, 2011.

6. Portland Square Hotel, New York: Currently undergoing renovations to become the four-star Sanctuary Hotel, the Portland Square Hotel in Times Square will offer a 20.10% discount on best available rates to guests booking on Nov. 29 with rate code CYBER. This offer applies for stays through March 31, 2011.

7. Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, Aruba: Buy two nights at the leisure rate and get two nights free. Rates start at $294/night and are valid for travel from April 26 – December 22, 2011. Book online and request Promo Code D52.

8. San Juan Marriott Resort, Puerto Rico: Follow @SanJuanMarriott on Twitter and any time on CyberMonday tweet “I want to book a #CyberMonday vacation at @SanJuanMarriott” to receive a reply DM with an exclusive booking code and details for a special offer. Once you receive your offer code, head to and use your twitter provided promotional code to book your room.

9. Kura Hulanda Resorts, Curacao: Buy two nights get third night free at Hotel Kura Hulanda or Lodge Kura Hulanda. Valid on all nightly room rates starting at $130/night. Travel from now until Dec 23, 2010 and Jan 03 – April 16, 2011. Make sure to mention CyberMonday when you call or email for reservations [877-264-3106 or email]

10. Marriott Hotels & Resorts of Costa Rica: Book your 2011 vacation on CyberMonday and receive $99-$119 nightly rate at Costa Rica Marriott Hotel San Jose (deluxe room), Courtyard San Jose Escazu (standard room), Residence Inn San Jose Escazu (studio); and $119.00 plus tax per room/night at Los Suenos Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort (standard room). Valid for Travel: January 1 – December 19, 2011and request promo code PR5.

11. Cuisinart Resort & Spa, Anguilla: Book seven nights but only pay for five with this CyberMonday deal at the Cuisinart Resort & Spa. Plus, you’ll receive an additional $250 food and beverage credit. With promotion, pro-rated nightly rates start at $580 per night. (Savings of $235 per night). The rates are valid for travel from January 3 – April 2, 2011.

12. Colonnade Hotel, Boston: Celebrating the hotel’s 30 percent reduction in energy usage, the Colonnade Hotel is offering 30% off select room rates through Feb. 2011 on Cyber Monday.