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Holiday gift cards you can give without guilt in 2014

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By Jason Notte/MainStreet.com

Gift cards aren't going anywhere, so you may as well pick up a good one this holiday season.

According to the National Retail Federation's annual holiday survey by BIGresearch, holiday shoppers planned to spend $29.8 billion on gift cards last year alone. That's an average $163.16 per shopper, the highest amount in the past decade and up from $156.86 in 2012.

Roughly 81 percent of all holiday shoppers bought gift cards last year, compared with less than 80 percent in 2012, and they were planning to spend more with each purchase. The average gift card was worth $45.16, a slight increase from $43.75 the year before.

About 43 percent who planned to buy gift cards went with the explanation that the cards allow the recipient to choose exactly what he or she wants. That secures just a bit more moral high ground than the nearly 23 percent who chose gift cards because they were more convenient.

Still, there are a whole lot of holiday shoppers who have their pick of reasons not to buy up some plastic cash. About 10 percent say they'd rather buy an item on sale than a gift card with a fixed price, while 16.3 percent 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 25 percent of those of shoppers just find them impersonal no matter how many uses they have or what they're being bundled with.

Besides, the card is only as good as the retailer or restaurant issuing it. Gift card monitoring site ScripSmart assigns zero-to-100 scores to gift cards from retailers throughout the U.S. and does a great job of shaking out the duds.

Here's a list of 10 gift cards, compiled with the help of ScripSmart, that separate a thoughtful gift from a last-minute nightmare.

American Express Gift Card

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American Express dropped its purchase fee for the privilege of buying its gift cards from $4 to $3, but that fee upfront spares users more fees down the road and opens up a ton of options for undecided shoppers.

American Express also 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 cards. 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).

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. The worst part, however, is that you can't get it online without incurring a $9 fee. That's for a card you can't use online if it isn't registered from a company that doesn't even have a website to let you register it. It's annoying when you're basically just trying to give someone money.

GiftCardMall.com Visa

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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 $1.99 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.

Starbucks

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Send it via email, mail it, tweet it: The Starbucks gift card is still a fairly sweet deal.

Not only can you buy one in stores or online, fill them with $15 to $100 and ship them for free if they're ordered online, but your recipient can put it into the cloud and access it from his or her smartphone. It remembers to buy you a free drink on your birthday, it earns users rewards with each purchase and it's reloadable -- even with leftovers from other cards.

As restaurant gift cards go, the Starbucks card is ridiculously easy to use and gives way more than just the dollar amount stored on it. Considering that in-store beacons can now detect a repeat customer's presence and give him or her a coupon as soon as they enter, the Starbuck's card is the gift card of the future that's already giving today.

Costco

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It's just genius on Costco's part to offer this every holiday season. No, maybe folks won't be terribly excited by the ability to buy all their paper products for the year at once, but they'll never know unless they try.

Costco's Cash Card gives folks $25 to $1,000 to spend on big boxes of cereal 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 non-members its a great way to get bargains without forking over a $50 to $100 membership fee.

Amazon

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It's a catch-all, but that's what makes it kind of perfect. A $5 to $5,000 plastic or e-card version of this card a is good for just about everything on the site -- which is basically like handing over the keys to Santa's workshop.

Want streaming video and two-day shipping for a year? Just throw them $99 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 and watch movies or listen to music? Rent some of Amazon's on-demand videos or stream some songs.

Toys, furniture, home and garden suppliesc... it's all at their disposal. If they're cool with setting up an account first, the folks on your list won't know where to start with this walk through the marketplaces.

The Gap

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This is routinely one of the most versatile gift cards on the market, mostly because of all the places it can be redeemed.

Can't decide between a Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic or Piperlime or Athleta card? It doesn't matter. Any of those cards can be used at all the stores in the Gap family. That helps when a troublesome gift recipient grows out of Old Navy and into Banana Republic.

Whether you're buying cheap jeans or work-appropriate silk shirts, 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 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

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After a data breach this year, Home Depot's gift card is a safer bet. Household calamity happens. This isn't a terribly fun card, but it's a lifesaver for first-time homeowners who had a pipe burst or had a storm leave most of their shingles scattered across the neighborhood.

Home Depot's $10 to $500 gift card has some very important features its competitors don't: The ability to use it 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.

Bass Pro Shops

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It's not much good to you if you can't clean a trout, but with a 99 ScripSmart rating and lots of customer-friendly features, the Bass Pro Shops gift card and e-gift card are an outdoor sports enthusiast's dream.

The cards never expire and have no hidden fees. Campers, hunters and fishers also get 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 have a full stomach when you're on the river or lake all day, 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.

Marriott

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Again, a gift card should occasionally get the recipient something they want rather than need.

In this case, the lucky person on your list can get a night away from it all anywhere in the world. They also can get the card replaced if it gets lost, stolen or damaged, and can check their balance either by phone or online.

Meanwhile, the recipient gets it shipped to them for free, gets $25 to $2,000 for their stay and can redeem it at all Marriott-branded hotels and resorts, including Courtyard, Fairfield Inn, Renaissance, Ritz-Carlton, Bulgari and Autograph. Yes, it's good for international use as well, so dream big.

Nordstrom

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It's not exactly a discount store, but Nordstrom Rack is, which makes throwing a $25 to $1,000 card someone's way well worth the money.

For your trouble, you'll get the card shipped to you or its recipient free of charge. The person you're giving it to gets 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.