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.