How to Plan a Beach Wedding: Tips and Etiquette

beach wedding

PHOTO BY NORMAN & BLAKE, Planning by Alison Events Planning + Design

Close your eyes and picture yourself on your wedding day. If you’re envisioning sunny skies, a salt-water-tinged breeze, and sand in your toes, you’ve come to the right place. Whether it happens close to home on a private lake or by a crystal clear ocean in a tropical destination thousands of miles away, a beach wedding will give you and your guests plenty to be excited about.  

“Water gives you the most beautiful backdrop,” says destination wedding planner Claire Durán. “If you don’t have a lot of budget for decorations, just get the sea behind you and you’re done.” There’s also the extended time together that a beach wedding in a new locale affords a couple and their loved ones: “With a destination wedding, it’s not just a day and done,” Durán adds. “It’s a whole weekend of festivities and fun.” 

Meet the Expert

Claire Durán is the owner and creative director of destination event planning firm Claire Durán Weddings and Events. Based in the Dominican Republic and Washington, DC, she has planned weddings in Miami, Punta Cana, San Juan, Santorini, Cancún, Cabo, and Formentera, Spain.

Reading to start turning your shoreside wedding dreams into reality? We asked Durán to share her best tips, tricks, and advice for planning a beach wedding, and she did not disappoint. 

Beach Wedding Etiquette 

How far in advance should I send save-the-dates? 

If your beach wedding is also a destination wedding, you’ll want to give guests an earlier heads up on your wedding date so they have time to put in vacation requests at work and get good deals on travel. A year in advance notice is ideal, especially for VIPs like parents and wedding party members, but if you send out save-the-dates six months ahead of the wedding, that will still be more than enough time.

Do I need to book travel and accommodations for my guests? 

The marrying couple is not financially responsible for a guest’s airfare, accommodations, or meals while they are traveling for the wedding, but they will want to help guests make arrangements. A hotel block is often the easiest and most cost-effective way to ensure your guests have comfortable accommodations that allow for easy access to the wedding ceremony and reception site.

A resort may require a minimum room block to go along with the wedding. In these cases, Durán suggests making the resort the only accommodations option mentioned on the details card of your invitation suite as well as on your wedding website. Once the room minimum has been met, you can update your website with additional lodging suggestions.

It can also be intimidating to navigate to more remote beach destinations. In addition to outlining the best airport to fly into, research car rental companies, driving services, and, if necessary, water taxis and ferry services. (If you’re not sure where to start, your wedding planner or venue coordinator will more than likely have suggestions.)

What should I tell guests about the dress code? 

Beach weddings are often more casual and care-free vibe, but that doesn’t mean yours has to be. Whatever dress code you settle on, state it clearly in your invitation suite and, if necessary, follow up with more specific details on your wedding website. (Keep guest comfort top of mind, though—if most of the celebration is happening outdoors, asking male guests to wear formal tuxedos might be a bit much.) 

If the ceremony—or any other portion of the wedding, for that matter—is taking place directly on the sand, make sure your guests know this from the start. (“If guests are coming to a big resort, they might not assume the wedding is going to be on the beach,” notes Durán.) Share the info on your wedding website and on a paper insert in your welcome gift, and suggest guests bring sunglasses, apply sunscreen, and wear shoes with heels that won’t sink into the sand.

Is it okay if my beach wedding is entirely outdoors? 

We get it: once you’ve arrived in paradise, it’s hard to not want to spend every waking moment in paradise. That said, you’ll still want to prioritize guest comfort when selecting spaces for your celebration. If the ceremony is going to be outdoors in direct sunlight, Durán suggests moving guests into a shaded patio or a space with indoor/outdoor access for cocktail hour. As the sun goes down, so will the temperature—which means you can send guests back outdoors for dinner and dancing without worrying about anyone overheating.

Steps to Planning a Beach Wedding 

Pick your location. 

Hawaii, Miami Beach, the Hamptons, the Bahamas—beach destinations exist all over the world, and each one is gorgeous in its own way. When selecting your wedding locale, you may want to consider returning to the site of a memorable vacation, selecting a place where relatives live or that has special meaning to your family, or maybe even a place with good deals on direct flights from where most of your guests are traveling from. 

If it’s uncomplicated access to the primo shoreline you’re after, Durán is a big proponent of booking with a venue or resort on the water. “You’ll want the support, and you’ll also want the backups that come with a venue that you might not have when you’re just on a beach and nothing else is there,” she says.

While researching resorts, be sure to ask if they have a private place on the sand for your ceremony. A bunch of random strangers cheering while you exchange vows may sound fun in theory, but it’s very distracting IRL. 

Durán also prefers sprawling resorts to more compact hotels. “The last thing you want is for your wedding to be in one of those common locations—the bar, the pool—because then your guests are going to see it getting set up as well as when it’s almost complete,” she explains. “Then the magic of them walking into the space for the first time is lost.” 

Do your research on the weather. 

When is hurricane season? Is there a wet and dry season? When is it too hot to comfortably be outside for more than 15 minutes at a time? These are all questions to ask that will help you determine the best time of year for your beach wedding.

While the lower rates of hurricane season might be tempting, know you’re running a big gamble. Because if a hurricane does come—“and with global warming, they’re coming more often and stronger than ever,” says Durán—you won’t be able to just move things inside. You’ll have to cancel the entire wedding, and your guests will also have to cancel their trips.

Be sure to get the specifics on rainy season, because it might not present as much of a problem as you’d think. “In the Caribbean, it will rain most likely every single day for at least a couple of minutes,” Durán offers by way of example. But if you plan accordingly with a tent for the reception and are flexible with the timing of an outdoor ceremony, showers won’t get in the way of a memorable celebration.

Get the necessary permits for a public beach ceremony.

Unless the beach is on private property, you’ll need to check local township ordinances before setting out an arbor and chairs, as a permit may be required for a larger event.

Make sure your reception works rain or shine.

Unless you have the absolute certainty of it being dry all evening, the best decision is for your plan A to be good to go for rain,” says Durán. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to retreat indoors for the main party, but it does mean you should budget for a tent

Travel intelligently with your essentials. 

Going by plane? Carry on anything you can’t imagine having your wedding without. (Like say, your wedding dress.) The last thing you need to stress about is lost luggage.

Beach Wedding Décor & Dining Tips

Don’t feel limited by theme. 

Tropical and nautical are most definitely *not* your only options. “Think of a wedding on the beach as a blank slate,” says Durán. “If you love the garden-y look or want to go French, or classic, or sophisticated, do it! A designer can help bring it all together.”   

Be smart about beach ceremony set-up. 

Acrylic or wooden chairs can be quickly wiped down in case of passing rain, and are far easier to set up and break down than upholstered options. A spot to leave shoes (sometimes called a shoe valet) is both a fun décor element and a nice amenity to offer guests if you’re getting hitched on on the sand, and, because of sea breezes, programs should never be placed directly on chairs without something weighing them down. (You could also task an usher with handing them out.)

Also: speakers. If sound amplification is allowed and your group is larger than 50, this is something you’ll definitely want to consider springing for. “Your voice won’t project in an open space the way it would in a ballroom,” says Durán. “Same with music if you have live instruments or a singer.” Be sure to consult a pro, as a subpar sound system might pick up too much wind and ambient noise.

While many officiants now read from iPads for a more modern look, the glare of direct sunlight at a beach wedding can make them hard to read.

Select a see-through tent.  

When couples want to feel in the open and untouched but still protected from the elements, Durán suggests a clear tent. “Try to get something really high—over 20 feet,” she adds. “A low roof will make it feel like you’re indoors.” When planning the seating chart, Durán says that tables at the perimeter have a buffer of several feet between them and the tent edge—that way they aren’t at the mercy of wind-blown rain.

Get heavy with the rest of your décor. 

If it’s going to be windy, forget about bud vases, small centerpieces, and thin candlesticks. “You have to go for pieces that have good weight so the wind doesn’t blow them away,” says Durán. “And make sure your menus, napkins, and place cards are weighed down.”

Add local flair to the menu. 

Your wedding food and drink should largely represent things you enjoy, but it’s also a good idea to research what’s authentic to your destination and add touches throughout the wedding weekend (a local fish at the rehearsal dinner, coconut drinks at cocktail hour, plantain appetizers, etc.). “It makes it a more authentic experience for everyone to enjoy,” Durán says. “Your guests didn’t travel to eat strip steak with mashed potatoes and asparagus.” 

Related Stories