NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Gift cards fit so nicely in greeting cards and Christmas stockings, it's easy to see why they're such a popular gift each holiday season. The average shopper is expected to spend more than $170 on gift card purchases this year, and for the eighth year in a row they're the most-wanted item on everyone's list, with 62% of consumers asking for one, according to WalletHub.com.
If you're unsure which ones may work for everyone on your list, look no further. Here's a look at the top 10 most-searched-for gift cards this year and what to look out for when buying.
Visa gift cards are hot this year because they're "universal purpose," says Jill Gonzalez, spokeswoman for WalletHub.
"You can shop anywhere and buy anything," Gonzalez says.
Beware that unlike store cards, general-purpose cards often charge an activation fee, usually around $5.95. This fee is paid at the time of purchase and is in addition to the gift card value, so a $100 Visa gift card would cost the buyer $105.95.
"Those fees are how they turn a profit," Gonzalez says.
Amazon gift cards also offer the recipient a chance to buy anything they want, as long as it's for sale on Amazon.com. This includes music, movies and e-books that can be downloaded to your mobile device.
"A lot of people are opting for Amazon cards because they offer the recipient a chance to get anything they want, without the fees associated with a Visa or American Express gift card," she says.
Know someone who loves music or constantly needs more lives on Candy Crush? iTunes gift cards may be the solution.
"Anyone with friends or children who tend to rack up those in-app purchases know what a great gift this can be," Gonzales says. "This is the kind of gift that you know is going to be put to good use."
4. American Express
Same as with the Visa gift cards, American Express cards can be used for any purchase, anywhere that accepts American Express credit cards.
"American Express isn't accepted everywhere, so that's why we saw Visa cards slightly more popular this year," Gonzales says.
Netflix gift cards can be used toward a new Netflix subscription or toward purchases on a preexisting account, Gonzales says.
"Especially now that Netflix does original programming, they've got fans in every age group," she says. "House of Cards has fans who are in college and fans who are grandparents."
For the person who has everything, a Wal-Mart gift card may be the solution.
"They're everywhere," Gonzales says. "It's a universal store for people to stop in. It's convenient for people to purchase the cards, and whoever you're buying it for will likely have one nearby," she says.
As with Wal-Mart cards, Target gift cards are a great "universal" gift.
"Don't forget about e-commerce," Gonzales says. "You can also use these cards online and have your purchases shipped."
8. Google Play
Just like iTunes gift cards, Google Play cards can be put towards music, movies, apps and in-app purchases.
"It's the ultimate digital gift card," she says. "This is the kind of card that they may not use right away, but they're going to be using throughout the year."
eBay gift cards are great for that special someone who prefers unique, antique or vintage gifts, Gonzales says.
"These are popular for people who seek out those rare items," she says. "You're not going to find a vintage 1960's toaster at Wal-Mart or on Amazon."
For many Americans, coffee has moved from the "luxury" category and into the "necessity" category, Gonzales says. Starbucks cards are popular because they're great for everyone from your best friend to your boss. The cards can also be quickly transferred to your mobile device and used with the Starbucks app.
"It's almost not cool to have a plastic card anymore," she says. "Starbucks, iTunes and Chipotle cards can all be used right from your phone."
Gift card tips:
Don't pay for shipping
Digital gift cards can go right to the recipient's inbox, so there's no need to pay for shipping, Gonzales says. When delivered digitally, the cards can either be used online, directly from the recipient's mobile phone or printed out and used in-store.
If you want to give a physical card, just pick one up at a nearby store. Visa and American Express gift cards are available at most major retailers.
Know the difference between gift cards and prepaid cards
You can't reload prepaid cards, and prepaid cards expire much quicker than gift cards. By law, gift cards can't expire until five years after the issue date, but prepaid cards may expire 12 months after purchase.
"Prepaid cards are not governed by same laws as gift cards. Gift cards much easier to understand and handle," she says.
If you want the gift recipient to continue to use the card beyond the holiday season, pay attention to what you're buying.
"When you see a gift card hanging in a package, before you buy, I would recommend flipping it over and reading the fine print. At first glance there may not be a distinguishable difference."
Not everything is on mobile
If you know your gift recipient is a fan of using their mobile device to pay, beware that not all gift cards can be sent via email or provide credits that can be used on your mobile device, Gonzales cautions.
"Mobile is not available for every card," she says. "Next holiday season may be a different story, but right now it's not everywhere for everything. Sometimes you still have to have that physical card."
Look to use credit card reward points
"If you find yourself a couple of gifts short this year, why not get a couple of gift cards with the rewards points you're not even using anyway?" Gonzales asks.
With most credit cards, when you redeem your rewards points for gift cards, it often costs fewer rewards points than if you redeemed those points for cash.
— By Kathryn Tuggle for MainStreet