The Business class cabin on my Qatar Airways flight between Doha and Jakarta (June 28-29, 2016).
The Business class cabin on my Qatar Airways flight between Doha and Jakarta (June 28-29, 2016).

How to get a flight upgrade for free

  Indonesia : Komodo + Raja Ampat - July 2016

Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic translation of an article originally written in French. I apologise for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have resulted. If you read French, click on the French flag below to access the original, correct text: 

"We are pleased to upgrade you to Business Class. "Standing in front of the Qatar Airways boarding counter at Doha airport, I couldn't believe my ears.

"Oh, thank you "I reply half-heartedly. When I just want to scream with joy, there, in front of the counter!!!!

"Enjoy your flight"

The airline agent is busy with my boarding pass, my passport and his computer keyboard, not looking at me any more, consumed by the screen. Yet I must have a lot of stars in my eyes. And a radiant air princess smile.

😮 😃 😍 😇 🙃 😌

But the last thing I want to do is interrupt the rare, delicate, marvellous and very mysterious procedure of moving a passenger into the Business class cabin who had originally purchased a promotional Economy class ticket (a bargain: €450.89 round trip Paris-Jakarta via Doha)...

So I keep a low profile, wait politely and hold back the "why? I'm a little low on energy too, having spent over 6 hours on the first flight from Paris to Doha (in Eco class, but with an empty seat next to me), then queued up again at security and wandered the aisles of Doha airport until I found the right gate.

My old boarding pass is already at the bottom of the garbage can, torn in two. The printer crackles. The man hands me my new boarding pass and returns my passport with a big, affable smile: "Enjoy your flight." Argh. Yes, yes, yes, thanks, "Thank you so much..." But he is already turning to the people behind me. It's almost time for take-off.

Luxury, calm and voluptuousness

This is not the first time I've traveled in Business Class. I didn't take the time to tell it at the time, but it was during my July 2013 tripwhen I went diving in Borneo. For the return trip, this time with Emirates, I had redeemed miles for an upgrade on the Dubai-Paris leg of the flight (I didn't have enough miles for an upgrade on the whole flight).

But there, for this new trip to Indonesia from June-July 2016With Qatar Airways, this is the very first time in my life (and I've been flying several times a year for almost 20 years) that I got a free upgrade! Without asking or trying anything special. That's how rare this event is...


In the corridor between the boarding lounge and the plane, I feel a small thrill of happiness as I confidently turn left, where the Business Class sign is, instead of continuing straight on to the door leading to the Eco cabin...

I then discovered the pink and muffled atmosphere of the Business class. The color of the lighting will change according to the different phases of the flight.

The Business class cabin on my Qatar Airways flight between Doha and Paris. June 28, 2016.
The Business class cabin on my Qatar Airways flight between Doha and Jakarta (June 28-29, 2016).

The steward begins by offering me a glass of champagne while we wait for takeoff, and then lets me discover the menu for the meal that will be served shortly afterwards. Before bubbles under water, long live bubbles in the air!!!!

As the film of safety instructions scrolls across the screen, humorously shot with football stars because we're in the middle of Euro soccer, I discover the travel kit offered to passengers: pyjamas, socks and slippers, toiletries with chic products, earplugs and mask, big noise-reducing headphones, big pillow and thick blanket... I sigh with relief.

I'm pampered even before takeoff ...
I'm pampered even before takeoff ...
Safety instructions in "football" mode ...
Safety instructions in "soccer" mode...

Shortly after takeoff, I attacked the meal. I've opted for an assortment of Mediterranean mezzés as a starter, a beef massaman curry as a main course to get me into the Asian mood, and a cheese platter to finish - cheeses I'm shamelessly stuffing myself with, in anticipation of the weeks to come, when rice will be more of my regular fare...

All served on a white tablecloth, with stemmed glass, real cutlery and a small basket of real bread. Luxury is so good...

Between two films and two mouthfuls of cheese, I try to use the wifi system. Not very convincing. Baited by the first few free minutes, when I saw that it worked pretty well, I then spent a few dollars to extend the service... for not much! The connection became unstable and rather slow, then downright non-existent, with a message saying that the countries overflown did not authorize the service and inviting me to try again later.

Jetlagged, exhausted by the previous flight, I quickly abandon myself to the comfort of my alcove seat, which hides me from the eyes of the neighbors and becomes my bubble during the eight hours of flight.

My alcove-alcove any comfort ...
My seat-alcove any comfort ...
This seat can become a sunbed or bed, with plenty of intermediate positions ... The dream!
This seat can become a deckchair or a bed, with lots of intermediate positions... The dream!

In fact, the real luxury in Business Class is that the seat can be transformed into a real bed, where you can lie down completely. An absolute dream for me, who can't sleep sitting down (or only a little). Thanks to my bed, I'll be able to squeeze in a few hours of sleep during the trip and arrive a little less shattered than usual in Jakarta, where I have to catch a flight to Bali...

During this luxurious interlude in the air, I only took a few photos with my iPhone, by stealth. What can I say... Of course, ridiculousness doesn't kill, but all the same, I didn't really want to look like Mr Bean discovering First Class (see the first minute of the video below)... 😂

How are upgraded passengers selected?

Let's go back a bit, to Doha airport, when I'm still in a daze from holding a Business Class ticket in my hand... A sign blocks my view from the boarding lounge, and I can't see if the next passenger is getting the same preferential treatment.

The gentleman in front of me at the boarding counter also got an upgrade! I discreetly watched the scene - a little nervous, a little jealous - as I waited my turn, very much hoping that I too would be offered a complimentary upgrade. And so it was! 😆

It's a "chance" you rarely get as a normal passenger (as I said earlier, it's never happened to me in twenty years of travel). But it's not all by chance. On reflection, I think that in my case, it took a combination of the six factors below for this little miracle to happen:

  • The flight was likely full. That is, there were at least as many checked-in passengers as there were seats available on the plane, all classes combined.
  • The company had to make overbooking on the Eco class. It's a common and normal practice: there's always a percentage of cancellations and no-shows. And in the event of "overflow", there's always the solution of reassigning a certain number of Eco class passengers to unoccupied upper class seats, or, in the worst case, to another flight.
  • I was in transit and presented myself very late to boarding. Indeed, as the connection between my two flights, Paris-Doha and Doha-Jakarta, was very short (barely 1 hour 20), I only managed to arrive at the very end of the boarding process in Doha (new security checks to go through as I got off the plane, then time to walk through the airport aisles to reach the gate). I assume that, in the event of overbooking, the passengers who show up at the very last moment for boarding are the ones on whom the ultimate configuration of the aircraft is based, in the airline management system.
  • I am registered well in advance on this flight. I had checked in online, the day before departure, on the airline's website. My boarding passes (Paris-Doha and Doha-Jakarta) were then reprinted at the check-in counter at Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Paris, some ten hours before the departure of the Doha-Jakarta flight on which I had been upgraded. So the airline's computer had long since confirmed that I would be continuing my journey on the Doha-Jakarta.
  • I was traveling alone. When it comes to reconfiguring aircraft cabin occupancy, it's obviously easier to move a single passenger than a group or families. (Yet another argument in favor of solo trip ) Although several readers have already told me that they were able to get an upgrade when traveling with their family...
  • I am registered in Loyalty program the company. I have a frequent flyer card with all the airlines I use, which allows me to accumulate "miles". However, I'm not always "loyal" when I go air ticket hunting: I generally opt for the company offering the best fares (I subscribe to all the newsletters to be alerted to promotional periods) but with the right timetables (price is not my only criterion, I prefer to pay a little more so as not to have an interminable wait in an airport if there's a connection, for example). However, the fact that I was registered as a "loyal customer" may have played in my favor when, faced with the overbooking situation, the computer and/or the agent in charge of boarding launched the procedure to select a certain number of Eco class passengers to be redistributed in the unoccupied seats of the higher classes.

A lot of myths are spread on the internet, with so-called "tricks" or "secrets" or "advice" on how to get upgraded, such as taking care of your outfit, for example... As seat reassignments are mostly managed by a computer program, I doubt that a pretty dress or smart pants can fool the computer (as far as I'm concerned, my outfit was comfortable and quite presentable, but in no way elegant)!

Doha-Jakarta: eight hours of flying around ...
Doha-Jakarta: about eight hours of flight time

On the other hand, it's true that you can always hope to be one of the lucky ones when the flight is full or overbooked. But on a flight that's not full, it's much more unlikely.

It should be noted that two weeks before departure, I had received an e-mail from the airline offering me an upgrade (for a fee) precisely for this section of the Doha-Jakarta flight (which I didn't do, as the amount was still substantial). But this was proof that there were still empty seats in Business Class at the time, and that the Eco cabin was perhaps already too full...

Some links

If you read English, I invite you to go to the forum FlyerTalk take a look at this long and instructive account by a former American agent, in charge of finalizing boardings, who explains how upgrades are organized, with different scenarios:

→ Operational upgrades from a gate agent's perspective

Another interesting reading on AirTravelGenius (also in English), on how airlines manage these last minute upgrades called "operational upgrades":

→ How to Get an Airline Upgrade on Your Flight

Finally, two amusing stories (still in English) of travelers who were really determined to get an upgrade and who succeeded... Proof that the computers that are supposed to optimize the filling of the planes do not always decide everything and that the human factor can also play a role (I experienced it myself two and three years later, read the paragraphs I added below).

How to be upgraded to First Class like a boss

→ Scoring a FREE Business Class upgrade !!!

Oops, I did it again ...

July 2018, small addition: yay, I STILL managed to get a free upgrade!!! Again on the Qatar Airways Doha-Jakarta flight... This time, I discovered during the stopover when I disembarked from the Paris-Doha flight that I had just reached the Silver status of the loyalty program. This status allows you to be in the priority check-in line, at check-in or at boarding... Which is what I did.

No sooner had I presented the virtual copy of my new Silver card on the screen of my iPhone, received by e-mail between the two flights, than the young woman at the counter, even before I had clearly expressed my request, was already busy checking if there was availability. My Eco boarding pass disappeared, immediately replaced by a Business Class boarding pass... 🤗 Et voilà!

My boarding pass for the Business Class ... (Doha, July 2018)
My boarding pass for the Business Class ... (Doha, July 2018)
The Qatar Airways Business Class cabin. (Doha, July 2018)
The Qatar Airways Business Class cabin. (Doha, July 2018)

I still can't believe it. Nine hours of flying in such comfort is just a fantastic privilege. I enjoyed it as it should be. From now on, I will not hesitate to ask politely but frankly at each check-in if there is a possibility of upgrade, with accumulated miles or free of charge. We are not safe from a good surprise...

How about you, have you ever had a chance to get upgraded?


March 2019, one more little addition: As I wrote above, I no longer hesitate to ask politely if by chance there is a possibility of a free upgrade on one of the flights I have to take, at each step, either at check-in or at boarding time. And sometimes it works... On a new trip, to the Philippines this time, in February-March 2019, I was lucky enough to be upgraded TWICE !!! Once on the way out, the other time on the way back, on the Paris-Doha section, always with the same company.

On the outbound flight, I had asked the question at check-in in Paris and the answer had been negative. But, in the departure lounge, I was surprised to hear my name called on the microphone. "Don't tell me it's for an upgrade!" I began by saying to the agent who was waiting for me behind his counter. "Why, don't you want it?" he answered me, laughing. "Oh but what if..." And he handed me a new boarding pass, for Business Class... I tried to find out why I had been so lucky and a manager, who was listening to us, confirmed that several factors could come into play when they decided to upgrade a passenger: "Sometimes the economy class is a little full, and then it can depend on the loyalty card you have..."

I probably owe this complimentary upgrade to my current Silver status (which already allows me to skip the Eco line and go directly to the Business, First and other VIP or priority travelers' counters, to enjoy personalized service on board, to have access to lounges (e.g., airport fees, excess baggage, etc., all of which are really nice little advantages).

On the way back to Manila, I was told no at check-in and then at boarding. Normal, the plane for the Manila-Doha flight was far from being full. But I had empty seats near me, so I had a very comfortable flight. Then, when I boarded the second flight in Doha, I asked again politely if there was a possibility to "complimentary upgrade" holding out my Eco boarding pass. The young woman who was looking after me checked her screen and... "Yes, you got it!" she exclaimed. And I was able to fly from Doha to Paris again in the luxury of Business Class!

Yes, I'm varnished... 😇 🤗

  Indonesia : Komodo + Raja Ampat - July 2016