They've become another tool for smart shoppers who want to slice the price of goods, says Rebekka Rea, executive director of the Retail Gift Card Association, an industry group representing merchants offering retail-branded gift cards.
No matter how you use them, you can stretch your holiday budget by learning a few ways to buy gift cards for less -- or even score them for free.
Check loyalty programs
Do you belong to a credit card or retailer loyalty program that gives you points or rewards for the dollars you spend?
If so, there may be some free or discounted gift cards in your future.
"I look at my credit card or loyalty programs to see if I've built up enough points to get free gift cards," says Rea. "That's a good first step if you're budgeting."
Rea's advice: Before the holidays hit, check in with all your membership, credit card and affinity programs, and see just how many points or rewards you've accumulated. Which gift cards do the programs offer, and how much would your points be worth?
Too many times consumers forget they're even members of these programs, Rea says.
Don't be afraid to leverage your savings the other way too, she says. Some retailers will offer points or discounts in their affinity programs if you purchase gift cards from them, says Rea.
For example, she says there's a popular grocery store chain that also sells gift cards. When consumers make purchases there, they earn rewards toward discounts on gas, food and other items sold by the chain.
If you're buying gift cards anyway (and can't get them for free), it can make sense to get them at a location that will give you discounts on something else you also need, she says.
Shop your favorites
Gift cards are like anything else: Discounts and freebies are no good unless you'd want those items anyway.
Do you love eating in certain restaurants or shopping in specific stores? Those merchants' websites are a great place to check for sales or specials on their gift cards, says Kwame Kuadey, CEO and founder of GiftCardRescue.com, a site where consumers can buy, sell or trade gift cards.
When you limit your search for specials to a certain set of favored stores, you limit your shopping time and increase the odds you'll find something you really like.
If you know that during the holidays you want to shop a specific store for gifts, check back regularly for deals on gift cards. When you find them, stock up.