10 best gift cards for holiday shopping

The Street
Gift cards at the supermarket

(Photo: 401(K) 2012/Flickr)

Thinking of phoning it in and just getting a gift card for the folks on your list this holiday season? You won't be alone.


According to the National Retail Federation's annual holiday survey conducted by BIGresearch, holiday shoppers spent $27.8 billion on gift cards last year alone. That's an average of $155.43 per shopper, the highest amount since 2007 and up from $145.61 in 2010.

Roughly 80% of all holiday shoppers bought gift cards last year, compared with 77.3% in 2010, and they spent more with each purchase. The average gift card was worth $43.23, a slight increase from $41.48 the year before.


Little more than 46.4% who bought gift cards went with the explanation that the cards allow the recipient to choose exactly what he or she wants. That's a more thoughtful, but perhaps less truthful, than the answer that nearly 20% chose gift cards because they were more convenient.

Holiday shoppers who rebuke gift cards do so for many reasons. About 9% say they'd rather buy an item on sale than a gift card with a fixed price, while 17.4% say they're leery of suddenly subjecting their gift to fees and expiration dates that wouldn't exist if they just doled out cash. A full 26% of those of shoppers just find them impersonal no matter what they're wrapped in or bundled with.

They're also only as good as the retailer or restaurant issuing them. Gift card monitoring site ScripSmart assigns zero-to-100 scores to gift cards from retailers throughout the U.S. and has no qualms about separating the solid companies from those on shaky ground.

With its help, we came up with 10 gift cards that make it worth taking the easy way out:


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American Express Gift Card
American Express Gift Card

American Express still charges a $4 purchase fee for the privilege of buying its gift cards, but that fee upfront spares users more fees down the road and opens up a ton of options for undecided shoppers. If buyers go with an e-card instead, even that $3 isn't an issue.

American Express dropped the expiration dates and monthly fees on its gift cards and allows users to replace lost, stolen or damaged cards for free and get full refunds for unused ones. It's like handing someone $25 to $3,000 at once -- or as much as $5,000 on two cards -- and sending them on a shopping spree anywhere in the U.S., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands that takes American Express (except cruise lines, casinos and ATMs).

(See also: Watch out for these 12 scams of Christmas)

There are a couple of problems, though. For one, you can't redeem them outside the United States, which means no mulled wine in Europe or high-end fleece purchases in the Himalayas. Holiday shoppers in Hawaii and Vermont are out of luck as well, as American Express doesn't deliver gift cards to either state and won't allow potential e-card buyers in those places to make those purchases. Also, even folks in states that allow the cards can't reload them or consolidate leftover amounts.

Costco

Sending someone into a giant warehouse for drums of Kirkland peanuts and oversized jugs of detergent doesn't sound like the most riveting holiday gift ever, but it might be the most well-received.

The Costco's Cash Card, however, gives the folks on your list $25 to $1,000 at a clip to spend on marked-down bulk paper products in the warehouse, electronics in the online store or unleaded at its gas stations. Perhaps the Cash Card's best feature is that it lets folks shop at any Costco location without being a member. In Costco's eyes it's a trial membership that gets new folks into the stores, but for nonmembers its a great way to get bargains without forking over a $50 to $100 membership fee first.

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Visa Gift Card

GiftCardMall.com Visa

Like the American Express card, this is just another more subtle way of handing someone cash.

Unlike cash, though, this Visa costs buyers $3.95 just for the purchase and another $1.95 for delivery. That's not great but, also unlike cash, if it gets lost or stolen GiftCardMall.com can ship a new one complete with the remaining funds.

With that peace of mind, the card can be used at any store or online outlet that accepts Visa. It has no further fees, no expiration date and basically no restrictions on how to spend the $20 to $500 on it.

Amazon

Don't know what to give a person on your list at all? Just give a $5 to $5,000 plastic or e-card version of this card and let their imagination run wild.

Want streaming video and two-day shipping for a year? Just throw them $79 for Amazon Prime. Want to fill a library on the cheap while not putting a single book on the shelf? Hit the Kindle store and go to town. Want to just kick back, watch movies or listen to music? Rent some of Amazon's on demand videos or download some songs.

Out of ideas? No worries. You just sent your gift recipient into a giant marketplace where they can buy just about every product imaginable without leaving their couch. They'll have to create an account to do it, but is that really too much to ask when you just gave a kid money to go play in a candy store?

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The Gap gift cards
The Gap

Can't decide between a Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic or Piperlime or Athleta card? It really doesn't matter. Any of those cards can be used at all the stores in the Gap family, which is a godsend for folks on your list with fickle fashion sense or fast-changing taste.

Good for a Banana Republic work-appropriate silk shirt or a messy teen's cheap Old Navy jeans, the $10 to $500 gift card for each store has the same policy. The card never expires, has no fees, ships for free if ordered online and can be used in stores or on the various brand's websites.

Also, if there's less than $5 on the card, for example, the user has the option to either reload or get cash back. If that same user decides to shun the Gap brands altogether, Gap will give him or her a check for the value of the unused card.

Home Depot

Anyone who's ever managed their cash to the dime after buying their first home, had a pipe burst in their apartment or has had to rebuild after a storm knows how handy a home and garden store gift card can be.

Home Depot's $10 to $500 gift card has one very important feature its competitors' cards don't: the ability to use it both in store and online, combine multiple cards into one, send it as an e-card and customize it with various background images or your own image. Trivial as that may seem, it's a subtle way to say it's time to replace a bathroom faucet or replace that gutter above the front door before it crushes the mailman. A feature that notifies buyers when their gift cards were viewed is also handy.


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Whole Foods Market Gift Card
Whole Foods Market Gift Card

How far can a gift card go at this notoriously costly organic grocer? A long way for folks who shun packs of Buffalo meat for the shop's 365 Brand organic food.

Scoring 99 out of 100, Whole Foods Market's gift offering is easily ScripSmart's highest-rated grocery card. It never expires, has no fees, spells out a replacement policy and is available either in the store or online with free shipping. It's reloadable, redeemable at all Whole Foods locations and usable at Harry's in Georgia and Ideal Market in Colorado, both part of the Whole Foods family.

If you're that concerned about expense, though, it's all the more reason to subsidize those Earth-and-health-conscious splurges for those you love. Yes, they can make the card last months on cheap mac and cheese and eggs, but they'll remember that wedge of gruyere far longer.

(See also: 10 Best SUVs to Buy Now)

Marriott

All too often, gift cards are just symbolic of the shopping their buyers didn't do.

Somebody didn't want to think about another person's preferences or ask a person what they liked, so they picked up a gift card for some store and let the recipient do the shopping for them. That just can't happen with a Marriott card, which not only conveys that you were considerate enough of someone's needs to give them a night or two away from it all, but that you were committed to at least some vague semblance of a gift idea beyond the card.

This hotel card in particular is a pretty sweet get, as it gives a recipient $25 to $2,000 for their stay, is shipped to them free and is good at all Marriott-branded hotels and resorts including Courtyard, Fairfield Inn, Renaissance, Ritz-Carlton, Bulgari and Autograph.


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Bass Pro Shops Gift Card
Bass Pro Shops

With a 99 ScripSmart rating and lots of customer-friendly features, the Bass Pro Shops gift card and e-gift card are a great catch for any fishing, boating, camping or hunting enthusiast.

The cards never expire and have no hidden fees, a written gift card replacement policy and free shipping. If a recipient gets multiple cards, they can be merged into one and used for purchases in-store, online and over the phone.

Also, because it helps to eat before a big day on the river or lake, Bass Pro Shops Gift Cards may be redeemed at the company's Hemingway's Blue Water Cafe, Big Cedar Lodge, Top of the Rock restaurant and Islamorada Fish Company restaurants and at Starbucks outlets within the stores.

Nordstrom

OK, so maybe this store is just a little pricier than the others on this list, but what better excuse to help someone out with a $25 to $1,000 card?

For your investment, you'll get the card shipped to you or its recipient free of charge. The person you're giving it to, however, will get to use it at any Nordstrom or Nordstrom Rack shop or at Nordstrom's online store. They'll also be able to use it any time they want, as it never expires.

(See also: How to Get Your Gifts to Show Up On Time)




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