By Martin B. Deutsch
December 12, 2013 -- Rummaging through a chest of drawers the other day, I ran across a quartet of items that slipped my memory in recent years.

I refer to four airline club-lounge cards, lifetime memberships that my boss gave me as a surprise gift on my tenth anniversary at the Official Airline Guides (OAG). It was a much more thoughtful and innovative present than one of those cliched gold watches or a traditional corporate rubber-chicken dinner.

James W. Woodward, then the chief executive of OAG, flew from headquarters in the Chicago suburbs to my Manhattan office in 1977 for the surprise presentation: lifetime memberships in American's Admirals Club, United's Red Carpet Club, the Pan Am Clipper Club and TWA's Ambassadors Club. As we all know, the latter two carriers no longer ply the airways. The first two are still very much in evidence--at least in name after the "reverse mergers" with smaller carriers.

I'd so completely forgotten this wonderful gift that I hadn't even tried to use my American and United plastic lately. But finding these cards now is, in a sense, a bit of holiday magic. It leads to an inevitable thought: There is no better last-minute gift for the frequent flyer than a club membership.

Over my many years on the road, I've found club lounges are the perfect port in any real or metaphorical storm, of which there are plenty whether or not you believe in global warming. They've always been a great place to avoid the crowds and get a few minutes of R&R. I've enjoyed countless snacks, many soft drinks, endless cups of tea and the very occasional cocktail.

I'm not the most social business traveler, but I've found the clubs make it easier to fall into casual conversations with other frequent flyers. Back in the day, I was even known to search out The New York Times to indulge in the forbidden pleasure of working the crossword puzzle even though it was understood that you didn't scribble on what might have been the club's only copy.

Another obvious advantage of membership: You didn't have to wait on any lines. You just walked in to a club, dropped your carry-on bag, hung up your coat and then proceeded to the registration desk wherein you left your tickets with a club hostess to complete the check-in procedure.

I recall an occasion when I was transiting at Sydney Airport on my way from New York to Melbourne and was awaiting my onward ticket. As I sat in the club, an attractive female voice with a charming Aussie accent called my name. I got up, walked over to the desk and reached for the tickets she was proffering. When I grasped the paperwork, I found myself in unexpected competition with someone else's hand.

"Excuse me," I think I said, "these are my tickets."

A male Aussie voice responded: "No, no, mate, they're my tickets."

When I pointed out that I was Martin Deutsch, and that I had been called to the desk, he quickly responded that he was Martin Deutsch and he had been called to the desk.

We both began to reach for identification such as passports and drivers licenses, but I held a trump card, so to speak: my club membership. Then he called me with his own trump play: his club membership card.

It was a stalemate, which the lounge hostess watched with puzzled amusement.

As my Aussie doppelgänger and I began to examine the situation, we discovered that we were both named Martin Deutsch and we both had ties to the German city of Mannheim. In fact, it was quite possible that we were distant cousins, he now from Adelaide, yours truly from the Big Apple.

In the meantime, the club hostess had come up with the tickets for the other Martin Deutsch and we were able to sit together on the flight to Melbourne. We even kept in touch for a while after our chance encounter.

As I look at the cards today, I'm thinking that the four lifetime memberships set Jim Woodward back something in the range of $1,200, although it could have been as little as $1,000. Let me emphasize here that we're talking about lifetime privileges at the club networks sponsored by what were then the nation's preeminent carriers in the year before airline deregulation remade the American route map.

Today, of course, lifetime memberships are not something that the airlines actively solicit. In fact, they spend more energy promoting $50-a-visit day memberships than long-term plans. And even annual memberships are less likely because so many frequent flyers choose to obtain club privileges via credit cards such as American Express Platinum (Delta), the Chase United Club Card and the Citi Executive AAdvantage (American) card.

But as this month's decision by American Airlines and US Airways to pull their clubs from the American Express Airport Lounge Access program shows, club memberships via credit cards are anything but a lifetime perk. Even if it costs a little more, I prefer the old-fashioned method: joining a club directly. And, as I say, membership makes a nifty gift for the loungeless frequent flyer in your life.

The chart below shows current club networks and prices. There appear to be no lifetime options available and I have to admit that today's annual membership rates absolutely blow my mind. So I think I'll spend this holiday season calling American and United to ensure that my lifetime status is still just that. I'll also ask them to issue new cards. And maybe I'll even contact Delta to see, if in the spirit of the holiday season, they'll play Santa Claus and honor my Pan Am Clipper Club lifetime privileges.

Speaking of the original frequent flyer, old St. Nick, let me wish you and yours the happiest and healthiest of holidays. And who knows? Maybe we'll bump into each other in an airline lounge next year.

Here's the current competitive landscape and your gifting options:

ALASKA AIRLINES BOARD ROOM With about 50 clubs and affiliate lounges worldwide, a Board Room membership costs $450 for a new membership and $1,050 for a new three-year membership. Elite members of the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan receive discounts on member rates.

AIR CANADA MAPLE LEAF CLUB Air Canada offers three levels of membership in the Maple Leaf Club network. The basic plan (C$365 a year) offers access to 16 clubs in Canada. A North American program (C$485) offers 66 lounges. The top-level scheme (C$649) offers 270 lounges worldwide.

AMERICAN ADMIRALS CLUB An Admirals Club membership includes access to about 70 American clubs and Oneworld lounges. Depending on your status in AAdvantage, a new annual membership costs $400 to $500 a year. You can also pay with AAdvantage miles. (Please be aware that the number of Admirals clubs will increase as the US Airways merger takes effect.)

DELTA SKY CLUB There are now 50 Delta Sky Club lounges and about 200 more affiliated lounges. A new one-year membership costs $350 to $450 depending on your Sky Miles status. You may also pay with Sky Miles. Three-year memberships (cash only) cost $870 to $1,215.

UNITED CLUB Including Star Alliance affiliates and other partner lounges, the United Club network is slightly larger than the Delta Sky Club network. But that calculation will change as US Airways leaves the Star Alliance early next year. Annual membership costs $400 to $500 with discounts for elite travelers in MileagePlus.

US AIRWAYS CLUB With US Airways leaving the Star Alliance for Oneworld and being absorbed into American, membership in the US Airways Club is either a crapshoot or a cheap way into the American Admirals network. Annual fees range from $325 to $450 depending on status in US Airways Dividend Miles.

ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.

This column is Copyright © 2013 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.