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What to Know as a Destination Wedding Guest, According to the Experts

We've got everything from booking tips to travel advice.

Attending a destination wedding can be a lot of fun. Think of it this way: You've been invited to join a group of people you love—likely your family members or close friends—celebrate a couple's marriage in a beautiful location. It's basically one big, exciting group vacation.

The downside, of course, is that you have to worry about all the logistics you would for a regular getaway—booking flights and hotels, taking time off work, budgeting for your stay—while also doing what is required of a wedding guest like buying a gift and making sure you have the correct attire.

Meet the Expert

To help you navigate it all, we tapped three experts—Lea Stafford, founder of Lea Stafford Events, Jen Avey, vice president of marketing for the Destination Weddings Travel Group, and Bryan Keck of Alison Bryan Destinations—and asked them to share their must-know advice for guests.

When to Book Travel and Accommodations

Like any vacation, attending a destination wedding takes planning, organization, and time. You have to figure out how you are going to get to the location, where you are going to stay, how you are going to get around once you are there, and more. Avey recommends giving yourself plenty of time to arrange the logistics. "Destination wedding guests should book their travel arrangements as soon as possible," she advises. "On average, destination wedding save-the-dates should get sent to guests anywhere from eight to 12 months in advance, so guests should expect to book their travel arrangements soon after that."

Stafford agrees. "In today's travel climate, it's a good idea to book travel and accommodations eight to twelve months away from the first event's date. There is a major consideration that drive [the] decision [to attend a destination wedding] these days, and that’s airfare. With an increase fuel and staffing shortages you may want to book as soon as possible," she explains.

Planning ahead will help alleviate any stress you might feel, and it might also help save you money, reveals Avey. "The biggest savings can be found the earlier you book. Resorts may call these Early Booking Bonus rates, for example." What's more, early planning will also help the couple. The more set their wedding guest count is, the more they can finalize their budget and logistics for the big day. "It helps the couple gauge the number of rooms they'll have in their group, and depending on the contract they signed, they'll need to hit a minimum number in order to receive certain amenities," says Avey.

Destination Wedding Guests in Midi Dresses and Sunglasses

Photo by Ana Hinojosa / Design by Tiana Crispino

When to Arrive and Leave

If the wedding is domestic, Keck says it's typically fine for guests to arrive early on the day of the nuptials. "For international weddings, although it certainly depends upon the travel distance and destination, we typically recommend that guests arrive in the country where the wedding is at least a day prior to settle in and get their bearings, not to mention to prevent any travel delays or mishaps," he adds. "How long will it take guests to adjust to the timezone and jet lag? Have they been to the area before?  A destination wedding is a vacation and the wedding is just one piece of it, so we recommend giving enough time before and after to not feel rushed."

Stafford, on the other hand, always advises arriving at least a day or two before the wedding. "[It's important to] understand our current travel climate and consider the high percentage of cancellations," she says. "Give yourself a nice cushion just in case to account for those cancellations and/or delays. Obviously, there are a number of factors at play here, is this wedding location reachable via car versus airplane or train? Do you have connecting flights? Is there a time difference? Take all of this into consideration when booking travel."

When it comes to planning your departure, Keck encourages guests to stay in the destination as long as their schedules allow. He says, "Personally, we like to look at the region that we are traveling to as a whole and give our guests loose ideas of day trips they can take to bookend the already planned activities we have for them. There’s nothing worse than discovering something incredible after you get back home."

Gift Etiquette

If you are spending a significant amount of money flying to a destination wedding and staying in a hotel you might be wondering if you still need to give a gift. According to Stafford, the answer is no. "It may be an unpopular opinion, but here’s where I come from: Your presence in a beautiful destination is seriously the gift. The time, energy, and financial commitment showcases your love for them." Stafford isn't alone in her opinion. Avey agrees entirely. "Destination wedding couples like to show their appreciation to their guests for traveling so far to celebrate with them, so guests shouldn't feel [pressured] to buy a traditional wedding gift," she explains. "Many destination wedding couples decide to not build a traditional registry for their guests to buy gifts from."

However, if a couple does have a registry, you might consider buying something small from it, since technically that's what wedding etiquette dictates. "It really just depends on what the couple offers," Avey adds. "Honeymoon funds are a popular option, where couples ask guests to donate any dollar amount they're comfortable with to put toward certain amenities or activities, such as a room upgrade, first-class air ticket, or honeymoon excursion."

If you are spending a lot of money attending a wedding, you can also consider making a handmade present for the couple like a scrapbook of your memories together or a hand-knitted blanket for their new home. There are many types of presents that don't involve ample funds, so get creative!

Wedding Guests in a Variety of Different Attire on the Beach

Photo by KT Merry / Design by Tiana Crispino

Budgeting Advice

Vacations of any kind can be hard on the wallet. Fixed expenses—including your flight, rental car, and hotel—can quickly start to add up. Once you add in any excursions, meals, and some shopping, you might be well over the initial budget you had set for yourself. Destination weddings can be even more expensive than regular vacations because you aren't choosing the destination or the hotel, and the couple might opt for a pricier destination than you would. You also have to spend money on particular clothes and a wedding gift, if you wish to give one.

If you're feeling stretched financially, definitely book early. "Guests can save money when attending a destination wedding by booking early and working with an expert to help secure the best travel rates from them." You can also save money by flying on a weekday, sharing a hotel room with friends, or booking an Airbnb rather than staying in the official wedding hotel or resort. If you don't know anyone else attending the wedding, ask the couple if they know of any other guests looking to share a hotel room or rental property.

Travel Tips

Before traveling to an international destination, Keck encourages guests to download WhatsApp and local taxi apps—remember that not every location has Uber or Lyft. "Google translate is a must, and make sure to download the language packs for offline translation if you’ll be in the countryside," he advises.

Guests should also review their cell phone plans for rules on international data, texting, and calls. "Also, make sure your credit cards have a chip, as most businesses and machines abroad will only accept cards with [a chip]."

Keck also recommends packing the following:

  • Dual voltage travel steamer
  • Wall converters for charging small items like phones, shavers, and computers
  • Backup copies of passports
  • International driver's license if you plan on renting a car
  • Cash ("Cash is king," says Keck, adding, "most other countries are not as dependent upon credit cards as the U.S.")

Alternatives to Attending a Destination Wedding

There are many reasons why you might not be able to attend a destination wedding. You might have a conflict or it's a bad time to take off work. You might not have the money right now or you might be saving up for other trips or projects that are more of a priority. Don't fret, reminds Avey: "There are certainly ways for loved ones to show support for the couple if they ultimately can't attend the destination wedding."

Live streaming is now a common practice at weddings, so you can join the ceremony or the party virtually if the couple offers. Stafford says that if you can't make the trip but want to be part of the festivities, you should inquire about any virtual attendance options. You can also show your support by attending a pre-wedding festivity such as a bachelor or bachelorette party or a bridal shower. Consider taking the couple out to dinner before or after their big day to wish them well and celebrate with them. "Another nice gesture is to call the resort or venue ahead of time and surprise the couple with a welcome basket and gift when they check in," says Avey. "You could even splurge a bit more and gift the couple with a room upgrade, spa treatment, or a beach dinner."

Additional reporting by Maggie Kreienberg

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