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To give or not to give

Who doesn't like money? The near-universal appeal of cash has made it a popular gift for special occasions since the Lydians minted the first coins in the 7th century B.C.

But cash isn't without its drawbacks, notes Consumer Reports. If it's lost, it's gone forever. It's also a gift that tends to be forgotten almost as soon as it's put into a wallet.

Consumers who want to give cash for the holidays should also consider gift cards and prepaid cards. Here's what Consumer Reports recommends considering when deciding between these options.

Gift Cards

-- Pros. In a word: convenience. Just grab merchant cards or payment network cards (American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa) at a drugstore, retailer or supermarket. They can also be purchased online and sent to you or your giftee by mail or email.

-- Cons. Merchant cards can be used only at the walk-in or online store of the issuing retailer. If the company goes out of business, the recipient might not get the full value of the card, or it might become worthless. And the merchant might not be a favorite of your intended recipient.

-- Security. Some issuers won't replace a lost or stolen gift card, the Federal Trade Commission says. Others will -- with proof of purchase and the card's ID number -- so give the receipt along with the card. But don't expect to get back any value stolen before you report the loss. Scammers can also copy gift card codes while they're still on a rack, then steal whatever money a gift-giver loads onto the card. Before you buy a gift card, inspect its protective stickers or coating for tampering.

-- Consumer Reports' advice. Don't give a merchant gift card unless you're certain the intended recipient really loves the store. Almost $1 billion in gift cards went unspent in 2015, according to the market research firm CEB.

Prepaid Cards

-- Pros. Prepaid cards can be used wherever merchants accept American Express (3.4 million locations in the U.S.) or MasterCard and Visa (12 million). Make sure you give cards with low or no monthly fees or other user charges.

-- Cons. You'll usually pay a few dollars for a prepaid card at a store or online. And not all prepaid cards are a good deal. Some have fees that can eat up the balance.

-- Security. Many issuers of prepaid cards voluntarily offer the same consumer protections against fraud loss as bank debit cards by limiting your liability to $50 if you report the unauthorized use within two days of discovering it. Prepaid cards with the MasterCard and Visa brands go further by providing zero liability. But to get those protections, you must register the card.

-- Consumer Reports' advice. Three cards stood out in Consumer Reports' ratings: Bluebird by American Express and Wal-Mart, Chase Liquid Visa and Green Dot Prepaid Visa. They were highly rated for safety (insured by the FDIC), fee accessibility and clarity. They also rated well for value (low fees).

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org

Make suitcase shopping an open and shut case

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While shopping for a new suitcase, you can quickly find yourself foggy about the things that matter most. Consumer Reports researched the features that go into making a reliable and easy-to-use suitcase.

-- Choose a Side

Though bags come in countless shapes and sizes, luggage can generally be divided into two basic categories: hard-sided and soft-sided. Consumer Reports notes that each has its advantages.

Some advantages of soft-sided bags: They are lighter and can also flex and compress to more easily fit into the snug spaces of the overhead bin in an airplane.

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To keep fragile items from being crushed or your clothes from being creased, nothing beats hard-sided, or hard-shell, suitcases. They're making a comeback, thanks to new materials that are rigid and lightweight. Another advantage is that you can't overstuff it to bulging. And, so as long as you buy the right size, it'll fit in the luggage sizers at the gate.

-- Determine Durability

How do you judge a bag's durability?

Zero in on zippers. Bernard Majeau, director of product development at eBags, an online luggage retailer, says that most pieces of luggage come with a coil zipper, which is usually made of polyester and differs from the metal tooth zipper found on, say, a pair of jeans. The larger the zipper, the stronger it is likely to be.

Hoist the handle. Handles take a lot of abuse as bags are pulled up and down curbs and yanked mercilessly by bellhops and airline baggage workers. Make sure your handle is built to last: It should feel solid and sturdy, and not wiggle or rattle as you pull.

Wade into the warranty. A lifetime warranty for repair or replacement is, of course, the best option and a good indication that the manufacturer stands behind a bag's durability. But make sure to check for exclusions and to read the fine print. Certain manufacturers will cover damage caused by an airline, for instance; others won't. And most won't cover normal wear and tear.

-- Deal With the Wheels

When it comes to wheels, the first decision you'll need to make is whether you want two or four.

Four-wheeled suitcases, also called spinner suitcases, are more versatile and ergonomic. You can easily wheel a spinner at your side or in front of you, or pull it behind you without putting much stress on your back or shoulders. Spinners are a cinch to navigate down narrow airplane aisles and through other tight spaces. But Consumer Reports warns that you need to keep an eye on them: Because a spinner doesn't have stationary legs, it can roll away when it's placed on an incline.

A two-wheeler, on the other hand, rolls only forward and backward. It's less ergonomic because you have to drag it behind you, which could irritate your shoulder, wrist or back. But a two-wheeler will stay put on an incline and might be easier to fit into the overhead compartment because its wheels are slightly recessed.

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org

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