Holiday shopping tips and tricks

Apps and strategies to get the most out of your time and money.

On Black Friday -- the day after Thanksgiving in the US -- the retail floodgates officially open for holiday shopping. You may be experiencing some anxiety: Will you get the best deals? Are you going to the right websites? Can you avoid the mad rush and still get little Timmy that toy he's pining for? The most important thing is to make sure you're shopping safely, because a compromised credit card is a lump of coal that no one deserves. Then plan your attack with our holiday shopping strategies: We have four tips for online shopping and another four for hitting brick-and-mortar stores. Once you're equipped with our tips, try them out on CNET's shortlist of pre-Black Friday tech deals.

Online shopping strategies

Let's say you've decided to stay home on Black Friday and do your shopping online. You've picked out the websites and their sales, and all you need to do is buy the item when the clock hits midnight. As soon as that happens, however, the site slows to a crawl. That's because lots of other people are doing exactly what you're doing. You can't avoid the crush completely, but there are a few ways to ease the pain. We also know a couple tricks that can help prevent your credit or debit card from being declined.

1. Create your website account before the rush. You don't want to be halfway through the purchase process and then have to stop to give the website your shipping address and credit card info. Also, the site may send you an account confirmation email, which can take ages when the site is overloaded, and the store may run out of the item you want in the meantime. It's much better to make sure that Amazon, Best Buy, Target, etcetera, already have the info they need to process your order. Then log in to your account before the sale starts. The fewer pages you have to load when a website is overloaded, the more likely that your purchase will go through.

2. Use gift cards or gift credit when practical. One of the telltale signs of a stolen credit or debit card is a large number of purchases made within a short amount of time. Unfortunately, you may trigger a fraud suspicion while doing your regular holiday shopping. If a credit card company suspects that your card has been stolen, it will freeze your card, and you'll have to call to confirm your purchases to unfreeze it. Also, it's not guaranteed that your confirmed purchases will actually go through; sometimes the order is just canceled instead. You don't want to be in that situation if you're trying to buy a popular item that may go out of stock in minutes. One way to get around this is to call your credit card issuer ahead of time and let the company know you will be using the card a lot over the next few days.

Another way is to buy a store gift card ahead of time. You can walk into the store and get a physical card, and some websites like Amazon let you create a gift card balance. Many grocery stores also have a section where they sell cards for a variety of brick-and-mortar and online stores. Using a gift card can help you avoid fraud triggers, and you won't have to spend time on the phone with the credit card company that you'd rather spend shopping.

3. Download store-specific apps. Store apps may be a better option -- and offer better deals -- than shopping via mobile browser. For example, you can surf Amazon's website on your mobile browser, or you can install the Amazon app (Android, iOS). One may work smoothly while the other struggles to keep up with holiday shopping traffic. (Also, Amazon just set up two-step verification to give your account a second layer of security.) Store apps are usually optimized for touch input, whereas on the regular website you might need a mouse and keyboard to get around quickly. Target's Cartwheel app (Android, iOS) also offers discounts that you won't see in the store's advertisements, although you usually need to buy the item in person to get the savings. Cartwheel updates its offers every Sunday. Amazon, Target, and Staples are also offering discounts and services for Black Friday that will only be accessible via their mobile apps, according to USA Today. For example, creating a wish list in the Target Kids app will grant you a 10% off coupon for some toys.

4. Don't forget cash-back and sign-up bonuses. Many credit card issuers offer a few percentage points of cash back on your purchases -- up to 5%, if you're going to the right place with the right card (such as Target with its RedCard). Amazon gives you 3% back on items sold by Amazon (not by third parties) on its website, and you also get a $30 digital gift card that you can use as soon as your application is approved.

Cash-back offers will work even with discounts that say "cannot be combined with any other offer." Some card issuers also offer, for example, $100 back if you spend $1,500 within the first three months of having the card. Just be aware that the best offers require a credit rating to match. Target's RedCard and Amazon's Visa can be used as soon as you're approved, and you can apply for both at their respective websites, but you may not get your full credit limit until the physical card arrives in the mail and gets activated. You just have to make sure to pay off your purchases before you get charged interest, because that will erase your savings and then some.

Apps for getting to the store

Prefer to shop at a brick-and-mortar store? Apps can help you do your homework -- check out CNET's guide to Black Friday apps for finding deals, searching ads, getting rewards, and even scanning barcodes onsite to see if that's the best price. But apps can also help you get there -- find your way, avoid bad weather and traffic, save money on gas, and pay more efficiently.

1. Get a weather app. It's not like you can cancel Black Friday on account of rain, but a weather app can at least let you know what you're going to be dealing with and when. Accuweather (Android, iOS) gives you precise predictions for the next 90 minutes, as well as temperature and precipitation by the hour. It will also send you alerts for flooding, tornadoes, and other dangerous weather.

2. Speed up your navigation with map apps. Even if you know where all the stores are, a map app can tell you if there's traffic or if an accident is blocking your route. Siri and Google Now will let you dictate addresses, or you can tell them the name of the store, and they can usually give you directions to the closest one. This is great when you're driving and can't look at a screen, or when it's freezing out and you don't want to take off your gloves to tap your phone's touchscreen. iOS and Android devices have preinstalled map apps (Google Maps on Android, and Apple Maps on iOS), but some people prefer Waze (Android, iOS).

3. Save money on gas. You may be driving around a lot on your holiday shopping safari, and you don't want to pour your gift budget into the gas tank. GasBuddy (Android, iOS) checks your location and tells you where to find the cheapest gas in your area. It will plug in to Google Maps or Apple Maps to give you directions. You may want to gas up the day before Black Friday to avoid price spikes and crowded gas stations.

4. Set up mobile payments for faster checkout. Android Pay and Apple Pay let you tap your phone on a payment reader, which offers you a secure transaction with no credit card fumbling or receipts to sign. However, not every store is set up with NFC readers. Find out the pros and cons we discovered when using Apple Pay and Android Pay, and check out other apps for mobile payments.

About Tom McNamara

Tom is the senior editor covering Windows at Download.com.