Miss Manners calls gift cards pathetic. The rest of us call them "being done with my Christmas shopping. " Gift cards are more popular than...

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Miss Manners calls gift cards pathetic.

The rest of us call them “being done with my Christmas shopping.”

Gift cards are more popular than ever — to the tune of an estimated $25 billion this year, up 34 percent over last year.

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But they also come with spoilers that can drain some joy out of receiving them.

Some carry hidden fees and restrictions. They can be tricky to redeem. And it’s a fair bet your gift card will either offend someone who expected a “real” gift or sit unused in a wallet for months or years.

Yet people now are more likely to give gift cards for the holidays than toys, games, music and movies, surveys show. At least a third of people surveyed said they would rather get a gift card than any other gift.

Stand-out gift cards


These 20 gift cards came out on top in a recent survey: They don’t impose expiration dates or fees; they can be used online as well as in stores; and they can be replaced if lost or stolen.

• Abercrombie & Fitch

• Best Buy

• Borders

• Circuit City

• Costco

• Crate & Barrel

• Gap

• J.C. Penney

• KB Toys

• Kohl’s

• Lowe’s

• McDonald’s

• Nordstrom

• Old Navy

• PetSmart

• Sears

• Sports Authority

• Starbucks

• Target

• Wal-Mart

Source: The Montgomery County, Md., Office of Consumer Protection

Despite one embarrassing gift-card flop last Christmas, Lisa Owens is a fan of gift cards for their simplicity and the choices they provide. By the time she finishes her Christmas shopping, as much as one-third of Owens’ gift budget goes for cards. This year, she bought an iTunes gift card she predicts will be a big hit with her 14-year-old niece.

“I love shopping and trying to match gifts to individual tastes,” said Owens, 41, a writer and editor who lives in Issaquah.

“But honestly, as you get older and your list of people that you’re giving to gets longer, and your family is far away — gift cards have become more attractive to me,” she said. “Mainly, I just like that people can pick what they want.”

Owens’ parents talked all year about the generous gift card she and her husband gave them last Christmas for Applebee’s, a restaurant where they often meet for lunch.

But another gift card they gave to a different set of relatives backfired badly. Disappointed, the relatives said flatly they’d prefer to receive actual gifts to open for Christmas.

“It didn’t seem tangible to them,” Owens said. “That one went over like a lead balloon.”

To give gift cards a more festive flair, buyers can now put them in decorative envelopes, jackets and tins, or personalize them with photos or messages.

Sites like Extremelygifted.com go further, enclosing golf accessories with an ESPN store gift card, for example, or tucking a Home Depot card inside a wooden birdhouse.

Gift-card law in Washington


Retailer gift cards or gift certificates issued in Washington can’t carry expiration dates or charge service or inactivity fees. Consumers have the right to cash out cards when the balance is less than $5.

But those rules apply only to gift cards issued by individual retailers.

Bank-issued gift cards with the logos of Visa, MasterCard or other major credit-card issuers can be used almost anywhere. Those cards, governed by federal law, are most likely to carry fees and expiration dates.

Some people have trouble spending the exact amount on their bank gift cards. If your purchase is for more than what’s left on the card, it may be rejected, and merchants may not have a way to check the balance for you.

What happens if you buy a retailer gift card in Washington but give it to someone out of state? State laws vary, and it isn’t clear which state’s laws would apply.

The state Attorney General’s Office recommends learning about the retailer’s gift-card policy before you buy.

Shoppers can even buy, sell or swap unwanted gift cards at Web sites like Cardavenue.com, Plasticjungle.com and Swapagift.com.

Gift-card smarts

Despite their overall appeal, many gift cards go unused. Nearly one in five people who received gift cards last year hadn’t used them nearly a year later, according to Consumer Reports.

Some people run into trouble redeeming their gift cards or get tripped up by the fine print.

Owens recalled getting a gift card for a spa treatment years ago from a well-meaning friend. The rules stipulated that she had to use the card all at once and that it wouldn’t cover the gratuity or allow her to get cash back.

By the time Owens called to make an appointment a few months later, the spa informed her the card already had expired.

“I was just beside myself,” Owens said — but she ended up buying a spa service anyway, so she could tell her friend that she’d enjoyed her spa visit.

Today, Washington has some of the most consumer-friendly laws governing gift cards, with no expiration dates or extra fees allowed on most gift cards offered by retailers.

Bank-issued gift cards — those that carry the logos of Visa, MasterCard and other major credit-card issuers — are another matter. They’re more flexible and can be used anywhere those cards are accepted.

But because they’re governed by federal, not state, laws, they can impose fees and expiration dates — not always clearly spelled out at the time you buy them.

You’ll pay purchase or processing fees up to $9.95 and monthly maintenance fees up to $4.95 on some bank gift cards, according to a recent analysis by the Montgomery County, Md., Office of Consumer Protection.

The safest choice, consumer advocates say, is to stick with cards issued by retailers.

A green choice

Susan Loewus said she’s careful to ask retailers about the rules before she buys gift cards and avoids those with restrictions.

Loewus, a nurse who lives in Bothell, already has purchased several gift cards this year, including a $100 Starbucks gift card and another for a local espresso stand, both for her husband.

Part of the appeal for Loewus, 53, is the sense she’s doing something environmentally friendly by buying gift cards, cutting down on unnecessary packaging and wrapping paper, and giving gifts she knows will be welcomed rather than “regifted” or donated.

They’re also one of Loewus’ favorite things to receive.

Loewus’ 84-year-old mother, though, already has made it clear her daughter shouldn’t expect a gift card from her. She favors traditionally purchased and wrapped gifts and considers gift cards crass.

Loewus suspects her mother’s stance will evolve, though.

Her 8-year-old grandson let it be known this year that he’d just as soon have a gift card as a real gift to unwrap on Christmas day.

Jolayne Houtz: 206-464-3122 or jhoutz@seattletimes.com