Legroom, lounges and legalese: A guide to the best travel gift certificates

Be particularly careful about buying such high-ticket items through third parties, since a slew of rules and exclusions apply. eCruises.com offers a gift certificate that is valid for two years but is "non-refundable, non-transferable and may not be stacked" so read the fine print at ecruises.com. Another option is CruiseBrothers.com, which offers gift certificates in any denomination.

In many cases, you can buy gift certificates directly from cruise lines as well. Royal Caribbean, for example, offers denominations ranging from $50 to $3,000. However, the recipient must use them prior to setting sail since they cannot be redeemed onboard.

Rental cars

When it comes to giving the gift of a car rental, be aware that some certificates are good only in the U.S., even when issued by rental firms with worldwide locations. There are other rules to keep in mind. For example, Budget's rental certificates can be issued in any amount, but the fine print includes this: "Once purchased, rental certificates—and any unused portion of the redeemed certificate—are not refundable." Learn more at budget.com.

Avis also has a lengthy list of rules. With gift cards, the company requires a 24-hour advance reservation and the card must be used at time of booking; in addition, a gift card can be used for only one rental. More information is available at avis.com.

Trains and buses

There are several options to consider:

• You can help a loved one short on cash ride the rails home for the holidays via an Amtrak Travel Certificate. They come in a variety of denominations: $50, $75, $100, $250, $500, and $1,000, though each carries a $5 fee. Remember, however, they can only be redeemed at a staffed station. More information at amtraktravel.ai-estore.com.

• You can assist someone on the highways as well, with Greyhound's Gift Ticket Orders and Prepaid Ticket Orders. The GTOs can be purchased online, and three hours later the receiver can pick up the ticket at the departure station. The PTOs can be bought at a bus station, so the ticket will be delivered to the recipient at another station that same day. Learn more at greyhound.com.

• Peter Pan Bus Lines offers more traditional gift certificates; they're available in denominations of $25 and can be purchased in several ways. If bought online, they'll be mailed within five business days, but if ordered by phone they're sent out the next day. If you need them immediately, you can pick them up in person at any Peter Pan ticket counter. As a bonus, every $50 purchase comes with a free priority boarding pass. Read all about them at peterpanbus.com.

Miscellaneous

Sites and attractions can make terrific gifts as well. You might want to consider CityPass, which covers 11 metropolitan regions in North America, from New York to Los Angeles and Toronto to Houston. Whether you're looking to send someone to the Empire State Building or the Sears Tower, the Seattle Aquarium or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, these booklets contain discounts that range up to nearly 50%. The Southern California pass bundles five theme parks and family attractions and knocks about $100 off the standard adult admission prices. You can order online and even choose the "festive red packaging option" with personalized gift card. Find out more at citypass.com.

Even some cities and regions offer gift cards that can be redeemed at multiple locations. But make sure you know what you're buying. The VEGAS.com card, for example, promotes its use for "hotel rooms, show tickets, tours, golf tee times, and nightclub passes" but even the FAQ section of the site doesn't list the participating hotels.

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