How to Plan a Destination Wedding on a Budget

Experts share the best way to stretch your dollars when it comes to destination wedding planning.

A bride and groom embrace during their destination wedding in Paris, France.

AleksandarNakic / Getty Images

There are so many benefits to having a destination wedding. For couples who have the travel bug, jetting off to a beautiful place to exchange vows—perhaps surrounded by your loved ones, or maybe in an intimate ceremony—couldn't be a better way to celebrate the love of your life. And while destination weddings are a dream scenario for many, they tend to be on the pricier side. (Weddings in general aren't easy on the wallet, and adding travel into the mix can significantly increase the overall budget.)

All is not lost, though! We've called upon industry experts to lend advice on how to plan a memorable destination wedding on a budget. Ahead, find tips from experts whose job it is to help couples plan their dream marriage celebrations while managing their wedding budget.

Meet the Expert

  • Nicole Bono is the owner and founder of Bono Events International and an advisor with TRAVELLUSTRE, a Virtuoso Agency in New York City, New York.
  • Fallon Carter is the founder and creative director at Fallon Carter Events in New York City and Los Angeles.
  • Beth Helmstetter is the CEO & creative director of Beth Helmstetter in Los Angeles, California.
  • Ashley Navor is a director of catering and conference services at Prince Waikiki in Honolulu, Hawaii.
  • Miranda Wallace is a catering service manager at the Omni Amelia Island Resort in Amelia Island, Florida.

What to Consider When Planning a Destination Wedding on a Budget

Creating your budget will be one of the very first steps to planning your affordable destination wedding. Budget planning for destination weddings often begins more than a year in advance, and for many, this part of the process can overshadow the joys of planning. But it’s a necessity if you want to save money. “When creating a budget, you should research the local area to see what’s realistic for that region,” says wedding planner Beth Helmstetter, CEO & creative director of Beth Helmstetter. “From there, figure out your financial comfort zone.” 

It’s important to set an early budget because like with most events, there can be hidden costs. “You’ll need to factor in things like the trips you’ll take to visit the destination before your wedding day,” notes wedding specialist Fallon Carter, founder and creative director of Fallon Carter Events, who suggests identifying the number you don’t want to exceed in expenses, removing 20 percent, and making that your wedding budget. “Weddings often go over budget by 20 percent—this formula factors in for that.”

How to Find Affordable Venues

Doing your research with a destination wedding planner well ahead of your wedding date will help you hone in on the options for an affordable venue. From there, you can find ways to cut costs. For example, choosing a venue with natural beauty can save tons of money on decorations. “I work with a lot of striking venues including ones in Santorini, Greece, that provide a ton of natural beauty,” says Nicole Bono, the owner and founder of Bono Events International, who uses the venue’s natural beauty as a “frame” for the decor. “We’ve had clients nix florals altogether, whether for sustainability purposes or savings, and the wedding is still beautiful thanks to the gorgeous outdoor backdrops,” shares Bono. 

And taking advantage of the natural splendor around you doesn’t just mean using an ocean or tropical plants as your backdrop. “Incorporating local produce inspired by the region, like colorful citrus or fresh herbs on tablescapes can be a way to be more resourceful with the budget,” says Helmstetter.

Additionally, ask the venue what they provide prior to signing your contract so you have a better idea of what you may/may not have to rent. “My motto is, ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get!” says Ashley Navor, the director of catering and conference services at Prince Waikiki in Honolulu, Hawaii. “Our resort supplies staging, a dance floor, tables, chairs, linens, votive candles, table numbers, and mirrors for centerpieces. We also have some rental items, like charger plates and cake stands that may be cheaper to rent from us than an outside vendor.”

Tips for Saving Money on Travel and Accommodations

Travel will likely be one of your biggest expenses during a destination wedding, but our experts say there are a few ways to cut back on spending. Combining a wedding and honeymoon, for example, has its advantages—most notably cost savings. Some resorts will offer couples a free stay if their wedding ceremony is held on the property while others will provide a complimentary wedding package that includes everything (like the cake, decorations, and flowers) if a couple stays a certain number of days. You also save yourself the stress of additional packing and the hours of travel time moving from your venue to your new honeymoon locale. Having a combination wedding/honeymoon will also make your wedding memories extra special since you’ll associate both events with a single place and time.

Another way to save on travel is to consider rewards from airline credit cards that can give you discounts on flights, free checked bags, ground transportation, and more. Many cards have a sign-on bonus where you can receive extra miles by spending a certain amount in the first few months. Because of this, it’s smart to get a card shortly before making larger purchases, whether those are wedding-related or something like a car or furniture for your home. 

“A credit card with cash back rewards can be even better as the couple can apply those savings to any wedding-related expense,” says Helmstetter. Advises Bono, “I tell my clients to sign up for a credit card with zero foreign transaction fees that gives tons of points for wedding spending.”

Keep in mind that with a destination wedding, you won’t be using a credit card as much as you’ll be sending wires. “Wire fees are things people normally don’t budget for and they add up,” cautions Carter.

How to Cut Costs on Food and Drink

Local vendors should be an automatic “yes” as they know the area and venue the best—and they can really help cut costs with food, drinks, and decoration. Having the resort’s referral also pretty much ensures there won’t be any issues with your event. “Asking the resort for their approved vendor list also cuts down on research time and since the resorts usually work with the same vendors, you may be able to negotiate a better deal,” says Helmstetter. “That said, resorts often tag on surcharges related to booking vendors through their services so be sure to ask about any fees or upcharges ahead of time.”

Additionally, when choosing a venue, be mindful of what they can offer, food-wise. Is it a dry hire (in other words, just the venue) or does it provide additional services? Does the venue have a restaurant, and if so, do they have enough seating for everyone? If you need to hire a catering company, what do they include? “Navigating these details is fundamental to your budget,” says Bono. “Often the catering portion of your wedding can be a massive percentage of your spending, so you want to be careful and know exactly what you’re getting into and make decisions with full clarity.”

And when it comes to alcohol, controlling the bar with a stated cocktail list (for example, four to six pre-chosen drinks and a bar that only serves wine and beer) is one way to contain costs. “You save money and guests receive direction on what to order,” says Bono. “You can then add fun touches to the drink lists and have the bride and groom come up with their signature cocktail for the night.”

Other Ways to Save Money on Your Destination Wedding

In addition to cutting costs on food, decorations, travel, and vendors, our experts share a few other tips for cutting costs during your destination wedding.

Hire a Destination Wedding Planner

One of the best ways to reduce costs and ensure your wedding runs smoothly is to hire a destination wedding planner. Yes, this expert will cost you a good chunk of change, but they might end up saving you money in the long run; not only do these planners understand the ins and outs of wedding contracts (often in other countries!), but they typically have plenty of vendor connections (especially if you hire a local planner with expertise to your destination) to secure the best package possible.

Many resorts have a designated wedding specialist to help couples who’ve already booked their venue or they can recommend a professional. “Not hiring a wedding planner and trying to save money by DIY-ing everything can be exhausting and time-consuming and, in the end, time is money,” says Navor.  “When couples don’t hire a wedding specialist, they often rely on family members and friends to help them with the details when their guests should be able to fly in and enjoy the festivities.” On-site wedding planners will be your eyes and ears when it comes to all the little details you can’t handle while planning your wedding from afar, adds Miranda Wallace, catering service manager at the Omni Amelia Island Resort.

Have a Weekday Wedding

Being open to scheduling your wedding in a less traditional time slot—like a shoulder or off-season period or day of the week—will expose you to reduced rates. For example, having a Thursday night dinner instead of a Saturday night can save big-time on costs. “Plus, I love a pre-weekend wedding as guests then have Saturday and Sunday to explore the locale,” says Carter.

“This is one of my personal favorite ways to save,” says Bono. “There are many beautiful and magical destinations to choose from off-season that can help save on costs.” Another bonus to avoiding peak season: Your wedding guests can have a better experience because the location will be less crowded.

Booking a date off-season also saves on costs related to airfare, hotel rooms, and potentially vendor support, however, it can also mean undesirable weather conditions, like hurricane season. “And poor weather conditions can result in unexpected added expenses such as tent rentals,” adds Helmstetter.

Get Officially Married Before You Reach Your Destination

Every destination has a different set of legalities when it comes to obtaining a marriage license. Save on legal fees, transportation to and from government offices, extra overnight room charges (many countries require couples to be in the country a few days prior to being granted a marriage license), and the gathering of paperwork (including things like a notarized declaration of single status and photocopies of all the witnesses’ passports) and get married ahead of time in the United States. 

This will save you money and a lot of hassle and time,” says Bono. “Ninety-five percent of the destination weddings I produce are symbolic weddings, often with someone dear to the couple officiating the wedding. This is a personal decision, but a symbolic ceremony is always going to be the simpler way to go.”

Downsize Your Guest List

A more intimate and romantic wedding means fewer guests, which is a major way to save money on any wedding. “Couples have told me it’s cheaper to do a destination wedding because if they got married back home, they’d have to invite over 300 guests and that running away makes it easier to filter the invite list and have a more intimate celebration,” says Navor. “It’s a win-win for the couple—they get to save money and spend more quality time with their guests.” 

Skip the Wedding Favors

Save yourself some money and your guests the luggage space and forego the favors. “Instead, opt for a welcome gift with consumable options like local snacks and fresh fruit,” says Helmstetter. “These items are often less expensive and more thoughtful.” You can also donate to a local charity on behalf of your guests or put a handwritten note in each of their rooms showing you spent time thinking about them, adds Carter.

Source an All-in-One Entertainment Vendor

Consider how to hire the right kind of entertainment team, one that’s going to help you not only save money but reduce stress by taking care of the entire event production from start to finish. “This includes musical acts as well as the lighting and sound,” advises Bono. “It’s always more cost-effective if you work with a single team that can provide all these services at one price rather than hiring individual vendors,” says Bono.

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