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 made from a post originally written in French. My apologies for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have been generated during the process. If you are reading French, click on the French flag below to access the original and correct text: 

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

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

"Enjoy your flight"

The agent of the company is busy with my boarding pass, my passport and his computer keyboard, without looking at me anymore, monopolized by the screen. But I must have a lot of stars in my eyes. And a radiant smile of an air princess.

???? ???? ???? ???? ???? ????

But I wouldn't want to interrupt this rare and delicate and wonderful and very mysterious procedure of moving a passenger who initially bought a promotional Economy Class ticket (a bargain: €450.89 round trip Paris-Jakarta via Doha) into the Business Class cabin...

So I play it low profile, I wait politely and hold back the "why ?" that burns my lips. I'm also a little low on energy, having spent more than 6 hours in a first flight from Paris to Doha (in Eco class but with an empty seat next to me), then queued up again at the security checkpoints and walked the aisles of Doha airport until I found the right gate.

My old boarding pass is already at the bottom of the trash can, torn in half. The printer crackles. The man hands me my new boarding pass and gives me back my passport with a big 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, with Emirates this time, 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 that connects the boarding room to the plane, I feel a little shiver of happiness, as I fork with a confident step to the left, where there is the "Business Class" sign, instead of continuing straight 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 waiting for takeoff and lets me discover the menu for the meal that will be served shortly after. Before the bubbles under water, long live the bubbles in the air!

As the film of the safety instructions scrolls on the screen, shot in a humorous way with football stars because we are in the middle of the Euro soccer tournament, I discover the travel kit offered to the passengers: pyjamas, socks and slippers, toiletry kit with chic products, earplugs and mask, big anti-noise headphones, big pillow and thick blanket... I sigh with ease.

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 attack the meal. I opted for an assortment of Mediterranean mezzes as a starter, a beef massaman curry as a main course to get me in the Asian mood and a cheese platter to finish - cheeses I'm shamelessly stuffing myself with, in anticipation of the weeks to come, where rice will be my regular dish...

Everything is served on a white tablecloth, with a glass, real cutlery and a small basket of real bread. It's so good, the luxury...

Between two movies and two bites of cheese, I try to use the wifi system. Not very convincing. Baited by the first free minutes, where 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 completely non-existent with a message saying that the countries I was flying over did not allow 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. The absolute dream for me who can't sleep sitting down (or only a little). Thanks to my bed, I will manage to get a few hours of sleep during the trip and will arrive a little less messed up than usual in Jakarta, where I have to connect with a flight to Bali...

During this luxury interlude in the air, I only took a few pictures with my iPhone, furtively. What can I say... Of course, ridicule doesn't kill you, but still, I didn't really want to look like Mr Bean discovering the First Class (see the first minute of the video below)... 😂

How are upgraded passengers chosen?

Let's go back a bit, to Doha airport, when I'm still dazed to have 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 benefits from the same special treatment.

Because I'm not the only lucky one that day... The gentleman in front of me, in the boarding counter line, also got an upgrade! I discreetly observed the scene - a little bit feverish, a little bit jealous - while I was waiting for my turn, hoping very hard to be offered a complimentary upgrade. And that's what happened! 😆

It's a "chance" that we rarely benefit from, as a normal passenger (as I said before, it never happened to me in 20 years of travel). But it's not all by chance. After thinking about it, I think that in my case, it took the conjunction 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 is a common and normal practice, there is always a percentage of cancellations, of no-shows. And in case of "overflow", there is always the solution to reassign a certain number of Eco class passengers in unoccupied upper class seats, or, at worst, on another flight.
  • I was in transit and presented myself very late to boarding. Indeed, the connection between my two flights, Paris-Doha and Doha-Jakarta, being very short (barely 1 hour and 20 minutes), I only managed to arrive at the very end of the boarding process in Doha (new security checks to go through when getting off the plane, then time to walk through the airport's aisles to reach the gate). I guess that in case 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 done my check-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 of Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Paris, about ten hours before the departure of the Doha-Jakarta flight on which I was upgraded. So the airline's computer had long since confirmed that I would continue my trip on the Doha-Jakarta.
  • I was traveling alone. When it comes to reconfiguring aircraft cabin occupancy, it is obviously easier to move a single passenger than a group or families. (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 at Loyalty program the company. I have a loyalty card with all the airlines I fly, this system allowing me to accumulate "miles". However, I am not always "loyal" when I go hunting for air tickets: I usually choose the company offering the best fares (I subscribe to all the newsletters to be alerted of the promotion periods) but with correct schedules (the price is not my only criterion, I prefer to pay a little more to avoid an interminable wait in an airport if there is a connection, for example). However, being registered as a "loyal customer" may have played in my favor, when, faced with the overbooking situation, the computer and/or the boarding agent started the procedure of selecting a certain number of Eco class passengers to be redistributed in the unoccupied seats of the higher classes.

Many myths are spread on the internet, with so-called "tricks" or "secrets" or "tips" 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 nice dress or a pair of smart pants can fool the computer (as for me, my outfit was comfortable and quite presentable, but not at all elegant)!

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

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

Note that two weeks before departure, I had received an e-mail from the airline offering me an upgrade (for a fee) for this particular leg of the Doha-Jakarta flight (which I didn't do, as the amount was quite high). But this is the proof that there were still empty seats in Business Class at that 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 Read this long and instructive testimony of an ex-US agent, in charge of finalizing the boardings, who tells how the upgrades are organized, with different cases:

→ 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.

I had no sooner presented the virtual copy of my new Silver card on my iPhone screen, received by email between the two flights, than the young woman at the counter, even before I clearly expressed my request, was already checking for availability. My Eco boarding pass disappeared, immediately replaced by a Business Class boarding pass... 🤗 And that was it!

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