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10 Best Gift Cards for Holiday Shopping

Tickers in this article: WFM AMZN HD V GPS MAR AXP
NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- 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:

American Express Gift Card

American Express (AXP) 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).

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.