Mom showing a gift cardGift cards have topped the list of most requested presents for five years running, but some recipients inevitably end up disappointed. Whether you have a collection of unwanted cards you're looking to unload or just haven't decided what you want to buy, use these tips to get the most from your holiday gift cards.

1. Review Details

Despite new federal regulations for gift cards resulting from the Credit CARD Act, retailers are finding their way around the rules. A recent article in Canadian Business points out bank-issued gift cards from MasterCard and VISA often include additional purchase fees on top of the balance of the card. Other cards included as a bonus with your purchase are actually treated more like coupons, with short expiration dates or product restrictions. Before you stick these away in your wallet, read up on the rules and regulations.

2. Follow the News

With the economy still struggling, businesses come just as quickly as they go. If you have a gift card for a store that's struggling to stay afloat, it's smart to use it up as quickly as possible. Once they go under, you'll lose out on the entire balance.

3. Sell or Exchange Unwanted Cards

There's no mystery when it comes to gift cards; you either like them or you don't. If your plastic haul falls on the "don't" side, there's still hope for getting something out of them. Gift Card Exchange Day—a one-day event created to raise consumer awareness about exchanging gift cards for cash—is set to take place on December 26. Just enter the store name and gift card amount to receive instant bids from resellers wanting to purchase your card.

4. Consider Regifting

Do you have family or friends with a post-Christmas birthday or perhaps an upcoming wedding or baby shower? Unwanted gift cards make quality presents at no cost. Just make sure such holiday gift cards don't feature a season-specific design when gifting for another celebration.

5. Get Registered

Once you've decided you're going to use your gift card, get it registered. Call the issuers' customer service department and provide your name and address with the card's unique account number and PIN. If the card is lost or stolen you're able to get the balance credited back on a new card.

6. Keep It Close

Though gift cards work like cash, they certainly don't get the same treatment. Cash is closely guarded and meticulously monitored while gift cards get tossed into the sock drawer. If you'd tuck a $20 bill into your wallet as soon as you got it, why wouldn't you do the same with a gift card? To ensure they're around whenever you need them, put them in a secure place such as your purse, wallet, or car. That way you have your gift card ready for unexpected purchases and you don't have to use cash or credit.

7. Shop Smarter

In a surprising find, Wall Street Journal's SmartMoney discovered gift card recipients typically spend 140 percent of the card's face value during their redemption trip. This indicates shoppers don't spend as carefully as they would when using cash or a credit card. If you spend just to spend, take more time to weigh your gift card purchases. Also, use gift cards for stores like Walmart or Target on household items and boost your budget for a few months.

8. Make a Donation

Unwanted cards can be donated. Many organizations such as Make-A-Wish Foundation accept donations of gift cards that are used toward granting wishes. If smaller, local charities don't accept them, use your card to buy items like food and clothing you know they'll take. It's best to donate directly instead of through a third-party site so you know the money got there and you're guaranteed a tax deduction.

9. Keep Up with Balances

To avoid leaving partial balances unredeemed, keep notes about how much you've used and store balance receipts along with the card. You can also check your balance on such sites as if it's been a while since you last used the card. In some states you can even request a cash refund when the balance falls under a certain amount. Currently the minimum is $10 in California and $5 in a handful of other states.

10. Start a Portfolio

This year the investment site, GoalMine, is taking a unique approach to gift cards. From December 19 through the end of January they'll sell your cards and deposit the value into a FDIC-insured savings account or one of their mutual funds. Instead of filling your cart up with candy bars to spend the last of your store credit, get a college fund going for the kids.

11. Recycle

Several companies such as Target, REI, and Walmart began using bioplastic gift cards made with a corn-based material that will biodegrade in a regular compost bin. Though some gift cards aren't biodegradable, you can mail them to Earthworks System, a PVC recycling company that began accepting gift cards for recycling last January.  

Andrea Woroch is a consumer and money-saving expert for Kinoli Inc. As a nationally recognized media source, Andrea has been featured among top news outlets such as Good Morning America, NBC's Today, MSNBC, New York Times, Kiplinger Personal Finance, CNNMoney, and many more.