While your friends might have spent the last several weeks debating the merits of Lamar Jackson versus Patrick Mahomes, our travel nerds have been working on a fantasy draft of their own: airlines.
In the spirit of fantasy football season, five of our writers set out to draft the best “team” of airlines they could in our seven-round snake-style draft. Since there is no scoring system like in a traditional fantasy football league, we simply asked each writer to justify each pick.
Without further ado, let’s get to the draft.
Pick 1.01: American Airlines (Sara Rathner)
With several co-branded credit cards that can be connected to your AAdvantage account, it’s easy to rack up 100,000+ miles by combining two sign-up bonuses. A fixed award chart gives me predictability plus the ability to utilize MileSAAver awards for multiple award trips just off the sign-up bonuses. Granted, I'll need to fly economy to squeeze in multiple long-haul trips, but I'll just wear compression socks and take frequent walks around the plane. I got this.
Pick 1.02: United Airlines (Elina Geller)
This was an easy pick; thanks to its membership in Star Alliance and its own wide network, United Airlines has access to a ton of award availability all over the world. For its lowest-tier elite level, Premier Silver, United offers access to Economy Plus seats and a 70-pound checked bag free of charge. These are two important perks at this entry-level tier, especially since airlines charge for bag fees and seat selection. United has several co-branded credit cards and is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards® and Marriott Bonvoy.
Pick 1.03: Southwest Airlines (Sally French)
With the third overall pick, I was nervous that Southwest, which is unequivocally the best airline, would go first. The reasons to adore Southwest are abounding. There’s the Southwest Companion Pass, the brilliant open-seating boarding process and a lot fewer people trying to jam their suitcases into the overhead bins thanks to two free checked bags.
Pick 1.04: Alaska Airlines (Meghan Coyle)
If there’s one thing I know about Sam, it’s that he loves Alaska Airlines. So when I saw my opportunity to scoop Alaska from him, I had to take it. As a West Coast-based traveler, I fly Alaska often: back to my hometown on the East Coast, to see my friends in the Bay Area and to visit family in Hawaii. And of all the full-service U.S. carriers, Alaska is one of the few with character. Heck, they run promotions for ugly sweaters and give away tickets at baseball games. It was huge to score this airline for my team.
Pick 1.05: Delta Air Lines (Sam Kemmis)
Picking last afforded me the opportunity to adjust my preset “strategy” based on what others were picking, and it was clear that domestic airlines were going fast. Since Meghan ruthlessly scooped my beloved Alaska Airlines from under my nose, I picked my second-favorite domestic carrier: Delta. I had just rated Delta best in class for its response to COVID-19 and was happy to nab it in the first round.
Pick 2.01: JetBlue Airways (Sam)
This was a tougher pick. On the one hand, I legitimately enjoy flying JetBlue the rare times that I do. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure if any fellow drafters had JetBlue on their shortlists. I’ll gladly enjoy JetBlue’s extra legroom and free Wi-Fi while my co-workers sacrifice their comfort in the Star Alliance.
Pick 2.02: Air New Zealand (Meghan)
This pick may have seemed like a dark horse, but this is hands-down one of my favorite airlines in the world. Kiwis are some of the friendliest people, so the service is inviting and stress-free from the moment you step on the plane. The airline is also famous for safety videos that you actually want to watch, like the one inspired by "The Lord of the Rings." I flew a lot of domestic New Zealand flights when I was living there, and even though they were only an hour or two at most, it was always a great experience.
Pick 2.03: EVA Air (Sally)
EVA gets big bonus points for its Hello Kitty airplanes. Even without the good fortune of a Hello Kitty plane, you’re looking at impeccably clean cabins and delicious in-flight meals, making EVA one of the best airlines, in my opinion, for commuting between the U.S. and Asia for the price. A good get in the second round.
Pick 2.04: British Airways (Elina)
Despite the fuel surcharges and high taxes, a lot of value can be extracted from British Airways Avios. British Airways is a member of Oneworld, providing many opportunities for traveling globally. The carrier has an unpublished distance-based award chart and offers off-peak fares, resulting in sweet spots if the mileage in the route is lower than the region-based award chart on fellow Oneworld member American Airlines. Plus it has its own co-branded credit card and is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards®, American Express Membership Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy, resulting in plenty of options for earning Avios.
Pick 2.05: Qantas Airways (Sara)
On a one-hour flight from Melbourne to Sydney, I was served a delicious meat pie and witnessed the flight attendant treating the nursing mother next to me with compassion. Sometimes, the little things are what you remember most. That and you can use AAdvantage miles to book Qantas flights — another great way to use up all those miles earned with both AAdvantage credit cards and a nice pairing with my first-round pick, American Airlines.
Pick 3.01: KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (Sara)
KLM’s partnership with Delta and Air France means I have lots of options for flights to Europe, which is the key reason for this pick. Recommendation: If your itinerary has a layover in Amsterdam (common since the airport is a hub), give yourself at least a day there before heading to your next destination. There’s nothing like a bike ride through Vondelpark to prepare your legs for another flight.
Pick 3.02: Air Canada (Elina)
Air Canada’s Aeroplan program offers great award redemption opportunities with low taxes and decent prices. Aeroplan is also a member of Star Alliance and a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One and Marriott Bonvoy. Aeroplan miles present a great alternative for those who do not have United miles or Chase Ultimate Rewards® points. Aeroplan awards are often cheaper than those on United, especially given United’s recent 10% award price increase, providing those who have miles with both carriers plenty of choices for snagging lower-priced tickets.
Pick 3.03: Singapore Airlines (Sally)
Singapore Airlines is the epitome of class, no matter what class you’re seated in. Even sans suite, most flights include thoughtful details such as adjustable headrests, perfectly designed stowage areas and in-seat connectivity.
Pick 3.04: All Nippon Airways, ANA (Meghan)
I couldn’t build a lineup without a high-end international airline. If I had to choose one, it would be ANA, mainly because from every review I’ve read, you have the option to eat noodles for almost every meal. I wish the ANA flight diet translated to my real life too. Not to mention, ANA has some super cool premium cabin options in “The Room” and “The Suite,” which offer tons of privacy and plenty of room for me to roll around in my sleep and not fall into the aisle.
Pick 3.05: Emirates (Sam)
This pick signaled a shift in my strategy from “airlines I think others might pick” to “airlines I enjoy flying.” My introduction to the world of travel maximization came when I was upgraded to business class on a 17-hour Emirates flight from Seattle to Dubai. “How do I fly like this all the time?” I asked myself. Many years later, I find myself selecting airlines in a bizarre fantasy draft …
Pick 4.01: Cathay Pacific Airways (Sam)
Despite financial, political and operational challenges, I still predict good things for Cathay Pacific. Plus, using Alaska miles to book a first-class Cathay ticket remains near the top of my travel rewards bucket list.
Pick 4.02: Hawaiian Airlines (Meghan)
Hawaiian is another American carrier with character, and I love flying it — from the colorful prints of the uniforms to the nods to local cuisine. The best part is that it really feels like an international flight, even in economy. You get meals and snacks included on flights to and from the mainland, which is way more than you can ask of most other domestic flights.
Pick 4.03: Lufthansa (Sally)
It’s reliable (hello, German efficiency) and reasonably priced (I snagged a flight for my mom and me between San Francisco and Rome for less than $500). If you prefer booking with miles, there are tons of partners, including a few of my other picks like EVA Air and Singapore Airlines. Plus, with routes to dozens of European cities, it’s a Europhile’s must-have airline.
Pick 4.04: Air France (Elina)
Air France is a member of SkyTeam, offering many flight options all over the world. The carrier releases monthly Flying Blue Promo Rewards, which are award tickets discounted 20%-50% to various destinations. The primary U.S.-based SkyTeam airline, Delta, has egregious award rates, so using Flying Blue points for the same flights can often result in cheaper redemptions.
Pick 4.05: TAP Air Portugal (Sara)
Since it’s in the Star Alliance, transferring your Chase Ultimate Rewards® points to United may mean ending up on a TAP code-share flight. Embrace the friendly service and gorgeous view of Lisbon during takeoff and landing on your layover. Give yourself extra time to check into your flight and get through security, though. In my experience, you’ll need it.
Pick 5.01: Etihad Airways (Sara)
Transfer enough American Express Membership Rewards points to the Etihad Guest program and you can reserve The Residence, a three-room apartment on an Airbus A380. On the ground, you get a private chauffeur to the airport and an exclusive lounge at the Abu Dhabi airport. On board, you have a butler, a double bed and a shower. When you arrive at the airport lounge, you can shower again while someone presses your clothes. Is this what being rich is like? If so, sign me up.
Pick 5.02: Avianca Airlines (Elina)
Avianca is a member of Star Alliance and does not charge taxes or fuel surcharges, providing a great option for booking awards on carriers that are notorious for adding on these fees (e.g., Lufthansa). The carrier also has a favorable award chart when compared to many of its Star Alliance partners. Promo awards and transfer partners are an added bonus.
Pick 5.03: Turkish Airlines (Sally)
Turkish Airlines flies just about everywhere I’d aim to travel, and it's managed to offer flights that feel luxurious without costing a ton. Points nerds will also find that Turkish Airlines offers some of the best airline award sweet spots. Plus, I have a soft spot for the lounge at Washington Dulles International Airport, which comes complete with a waterfall, fireplace, Zen corner and two buffets (during normal non-COVID operation).
Pick 5.04: Japan Airlines (Meghan)
Every person I know who has flown Japan Airlines has enjoyed the legroom. Elina even wrote about how great the configuration in business class is. Food is again a big driver for me choosing this airline; it’s over here serving teriyaki burgers, bento boxes and Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Japan’s partnership with Alaska, my No. 1 draft pick, means I could fly from the U.S. to Japan for just 35,000 miles each way in economy.
Pick 5.05: Qatar Airways (Sam)
I think everyone is sleeping on the Oneworld alliance because of American’s foibles and fumbles over the last few years. But now that Alaska is joining Oneworld, partners like Qatar are suddenly more attractive. Now if only I had Alaska on my roster … (*shakes fist at Meghan*).
Pick 6.01: Fiji Airways (Sam)
It might not be very well known, and it might only fly a few routes from the U.S., but as a Oneworld member and Alaska partner, Fiji Airways offers lots of fun redemption and earning opportunities. Plus, Fiji just sounds nice.
Pick 6.02: Iberia Airlines (Meghan)
All right, now we’re in budget airline territory. We’re talking about small seats and limited food and drink selection. The cool thing about Iberia, though, is that it’s part of the Oneworld alliance and the Avios loyalty program, so there are a lot of options for travel rewards enthusiasts.
Pick 6.03: Korean Air (Sally)
Korean Air might incite memories of the "nut rage" incident, and I’m not defending entitled behavior by any means. But it speaks to the fact that, yes, Korean Air is known for its superior service. Serve those nuts on a plate, gosh darn it! If plated nuts sound nutty to you, at least don’t miss the in-flight bibimbap — it’s Korean Air’s signature dish.
Pick 6.04: Swiss International Air Lines (Elina)
Swiss is a member of Star Alliance, and its business class product is considered to be one of the nicer among many airlines. Swiss typically has decent award availability in economy and business, and you can use United, Avianca and Aeroplan miles to book flights on the carrier (providing plenty of opportunities to book award seats).
Pick 6.05: Alitalia (Sara)
Beset by bankruptcy but kept afloat thanks to the Italian government, Alitalia offers an in-flight experience I’d describe as adequate, if not a bit cramped. The real perk is that after several hours on a direct flight, you land in Italy — and that’s worth a sixth-round pick. So at least you can make up for the blah airline food with an Aperol spritz followed by the best pasta you’ve ever eaten in your life.
Pick 7.01: Scandinavian Airlines, SAS (Sara)
You can book flights on Scandinavian with United miles, including those you get by transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards® points to United, so booking an inexpensive reservation on SAS is easy. Supposedly the food is lackluster at best so I’ll plan ahead and bring my own, but hey, this is my last pick.
Pick 7.02: Copa Airlines (Elina)
Copa is a member of the Star Alliance, offering a lot of options for traveling globally. However, if you do have a lot of Copa miles, you can extract value out of the program in some niche scenarios. For example, Copa is partnered with Emirates, and fuel surcharges are not passed on when booking Emirates awards in business class using Copa miles. Copa also has extremely generous routing rules, permitting one stopover on one-way and two on round-trip tickets, allowing you to craft creative itineraries.
Pick 7.03: Spirit Airlines (Sally)
I’ll admit, I’m having just as much of a panic attack for having chosen Spirit as you are reading this quasi-blasphemy. Spirit is kind of an insane airline. Where else can you easily find a $17 one-way flight to Las Vegas? But a “$17 flight” will often cost you significantly more than that if you want to pick your seat or pack anything beyond one personal item. Sometimes, a la carte is good; sometimes you just need a ridiculously cheap flight and don’t care what it costs in terms of comfort. Ultra-budget airlines can be ideal for an already expensive bachelorette party, for example. They’re great if you want to focus your budget on the trip itself rather than the journey there. I have a soft spot for services like Spirit, even if my colleagues don’t. Pour one out for Frontier, which is going undrafted.
Pick 7.04: Aer Lingus (Meghan)
Again, I went for a budget airline because it’s pretty affordable, with or without airline points. Like Iberia, the real draw here is the multiple redemption options for points aficionados. Aer Lingus has a partnership with Alaska Airlines (shoutout again to my first draft pick) and is also part of the Avios program.
Pick 7.05: Hainan Airlines (Sam)
The options were pretty thin for this final pick, so I decided to look somewhere new: mainland China. These carriers have a notorious reputation among frequent flyers for their unfriendly policies and poor in-flight experience, but Hainan seems to have avoided much of this disdain. Plus, it’s an Alaska partner — even though Meghan stole Alaska from me, that’s still a valuable benefit.
The bottom line
Sara: American, Qantas, KLM, TAP Portugal, Etihad, Alitalia, SAS.
Elina: United, British Airways, Air Canada, Air France, Avianca, Swiss, Copa.
Sally: Southwest, EVA, Singapore, Lufthansa, Turkish, Korean, Spirit.
Meghan: Alaska, Air New Zealand, ANA, Hawaiian, Japan, Iberia, Aer Lingus.
Sam: Delta, JetBlue, Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Qatar, Fiji, Hainan.
Each writer constructed a pretty well-formed team with its own unique strengths:
Sara played the points game early with American and combined its award chart with a wide-ranging selection of later picks, giving her both good routing and also some niche experiences.
Elina played the alliances well and ended up with a SkyTeam member as her first pick, but rounded up four airlines from the Star Alliance for maximum coverage (plus British Airways in the Oneworld alliance).
Sally solidified her domestic and North American travel via Southwest, and then backed it up with a string of five international airlines. We’re not sure about that Spirit pick …
Meghan took a gamble passing on the last legacy carrier (Delta) and taking Alaska, but her West Coast roots came out in that pick. She supplements with solid picks covering routes in the South Pacific, Asia and Europe.
Sam recovered nicely from a poor first-round draw and mixed affordable domestic travel (Delta, JetBlue) with high-end possibilities on the international scene (Emirates, Cathay Pacific) — plus a nice sleeper pick in Fiji Airways.
What do you think about our writer’s picks? Let us know in the comments, and leave your thoughts on what your first-round picks would look like.
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