Destination Wedding Etiquette Every Bride Needs to Know

Here's how to avoid any faraway faux pas while planning the destination wedding of your dreams

Updated 01/05/17
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Photo by Nicole Leever Photography

Planning a destination wedding is a whole different beast, bringing forth an avalanche of tricky questions and scenarios during the process. Who pays for what? Should you register for gifts? When should invitations be sent out? Before saying "I do" abroad, consider these tips and advice from our wedding experts on how to navigate thorny situations and avoid any faux pas associated with planning a destination wedding.

1. Knowledge Is Key — Know Before You Go

Is your destination LGBT-friendly? When is hurricane season? Are there any safety, accessibility or health issues (such as Zika) that could be a deal breaker? Research your destination before booking and make sure to share any information about pertinent health, safety, accessibility and political issues with your guests. It's a little bit of extra leg work – but it not only shows guests that you care about their wellbeing, it also avoids awkwardness during your wedding weekend.

"If your maid of honor is your gay best friend, will they be comfortable in a location where being LGBT is frowned upon?" says Sarah Ntouskas with Make It Posh, a wedding planner that specializes in destination weddings. "Would any of your guests be offended by the treatment they might receive because of their religion, gender or sexual preference? Having a destination wedding brings all sorts of concerns to light that you wouldn't normally think of when planning a wedding, such as cultural differences and safety."

"Safety should absolutely be a consideration," says Janessa White from Simply Eloped, a company that helps couples plan destination weddings in New York City and New Orleans. "Do research to find out. As a jumping off point, the US State Department has a great resource that'll let you know if they've issued recent travel warnings or alerts for the area you have in mind."

Picking the "right" destination is critical, but season matters, too. Nothing sucks more than spending thousands of hard-earning dollars on a wedding — only to be hit by a hurricane. "Take into consideration the time of year you'll be visiting," says Ntouskas. "Make sure not to book during monsoon or typhoon seasons unknowingly."

TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS:
"Always, always begin with a guest list. Once the list is set, then parameters and priorities for determining a location become clearer. Satisfying the preferences of every guest will be near impossible, but thoughtful consideration of the needs of your most important guests — from wheelchair accessibility to on-site childcare, demonstrate the caring attention to detail that will impress your guests and demonstrate your genuine hospitality." —Marsha-Ann Brown, Director of Romance for Sandals Resorts

"I like to use 'the Grandma test' when choosing a location for a destination wedding — is it feasible for her to take a long flight and then get on a ferry? If you think about what it will take for all of your guests to travel, you'll be sure to select something that works for the entire group. Not only does the location need to be accessible, but also needs to work for your budget. Make sure you consider all factors." Andrea Freeman, wedding and event planner based in New York City

"Avoid any area that is experiencing economic upset, rebellion or war, or [have laws that] conflict with your views otherwise you could be getting more than you bargained for. I cannot think of anything worse than being uncomfortable in your surroundings on your wedding day." —Sarah Ntouskas

"If you're planning to get married during a high point in the tourism season, it could be crowded or potentially congested. Meanwhile, if you book a wedding during the low season, the streets could be barren and the cool spots could be closed. Be sure to chat with local business and vendors to understand how seasonality could affect your destination wedding." —Janessa White

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2. Send Your Save-the-Dates and Invitations Extra Early

Sending invites to your Caribbean wedding four weeks before the big day? Just don't. For destination weddings, build in an extra-long lead time to allow ample time for guests to confirm time off from work, save money, apply for a passport or visa (if necessary) and score travel deals. Generally, experts recommend sending save-the-dates to destination weddings 8-12 months in advance, and a minimum of three to four months for official invitations.

TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS:
"Send save the dates as soon as you set your location — you can't give too much notice with destination weddings. This gives people time to put a trip in their schedule. Formal invites for destination weddings should go out 3-4 months before the big day." —Andrea Freeman

"For any international destination, add time in case your guests need to apply for passports or apply for visas. Domestic destinations give you a little more flexibility and can generally be planned in roughly the same time as a traditional wedding. The more costly and further the destination, the better it is to give your guests more time to prepare." —Sarah Ntouskas

"Give your guests as much advance notice as possible. It's much easier to plan a trip if you have lots of lead time, meanwhile it's far more challenging with a short runway." —Janessa White

3. Make Travel as Easy and Smooth as Possible for Guests

It's challenging enough to plan a wedding at home — so naturally, organizing a destination wedding can be like herding cats. There are many added layers, from coordinating travel arrangements to securing to accommodations to finding an appealing destination. Luckily, the experts have a few tips and tricks to keep chaos at bay and make saying "YES" easy for your guests:

TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS:
"Add a travel agent to the planning team. A travel agent can make group arrangements and may have 'self-service' portals in which you can add your passport information and make payments. They can set your guests up with email reminders so that they are alerted when documents are due or it's time to choose their seats. Travel agents are typically paid by resorts/airlines, so this is no out of pocket cost for you and will remove a huge amount of stress." —Sarah Ntouskas

"Consider starting a private Facebook group for guests to share flight and hotel deals with one another. This approach can foster collaboration among guests, hopefully encouraging them to travel together and split costs." —Janessa White

"Give each guest a printed and electronic copy of a timeline well in advance, so that there is no confusion of when and where everyone needs to be. Give the resort/venue a copy as well so they can be prepared for everyone's arrival." —Sarah Ntouskas

4. Be Clear and Transparent About All Costs

For destination weddings, it's customary for guests to cover their own lodging and transportation. Even though communicating this expectation may feel awkward, there are lots of ways to tactfully start the conversation. "One subtle way is to make recommendations for how guests can get the best rates on the accommodations that they're expected to provide," says White. "In your save-the-date, recommend a few websites to purchase airfare and lodging. It'll be pretty clear that guests are expected to cover these expenses."

"Work with your invitation designer to include wording that clearly and gracefully communicates the extent of the invite," says Brown. "For example: This invitation includes transfers between airport and hotel, preferred rate at XYZ hotel, and so forth. Communication is key."

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5. Offer a Range of Lodging Options for Guests

That being said, not everyone can afford a five-star luxury resort. Your best bet? Offer guests a range of accommodation options that suit varying budgets. "Traveling can be expensive and budget-friendly accommodations might be the only realistic choice for some guests," says White. "Giving them a number of options will allow them to find one they're comfortable with and enjoy your big day without breaking the bank."

TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS:
"As part of being a thoughtful host, begin with the creation of a list and understanding the needs of your guests. Etiquette does not dictate that accommodations be provided to meet every preference, but if options can be conveniently offered, why not? And certainly, a travel agent can be helpful here." —Marsha-Ann Brown

"Rent a big Airbnb or vacation home during your celebration and give guests the option to sleep there for free. Sure, they may have to crash on a couch, but that's a far better option than being unable to afford attending. Just be sure to run these plans past the owner of the house before booking it and make sure they're okay with a (potentially) large group enjoying their abode." —Janessa White

"Give three base prices for accommodations, so guests can get a good sense of what their budget will allow. Most resorts and hotels offer several options for different classes of rooms, but also consider nearby accommodations that might be less expensive per night and have shuttle service to your venue. A travel agent can help with logistics, and since most specialize in certain regions, they may be able to get your guests upgrades or royal treatment during their stay. —Sarah Ntouskas

"Try to negotiate a group rate at a hotel or resort in the area. Ideally, this will lower costs and simplify everything by consolidating their lodging." —Janessa White

Photo by Jessica Bordner Photography

6. Lighten the Gift-giving Load

When it comes to gift-giving etiquette, the rules are a bit fuzzy for destination weddings. Afterall, your friends and family are shelling out a lot of dough to attend your big day, and you may decide to scrap gift-giving. "Travel can get so expensive and some guests may be unable to afford a gift after covering their flights and lodging," says White. "We recommend making guests feel comfortable about this by letting them know that their presence is a gift and they shouldn't feel obligated to bring something extra."

If you do continue the gift-giving tradition, keep it simple and virtual. Afterall, no one wants to haul bulky gifts on airplanes or pay extra baggage fees — including you. "Lugging a bunch of gifts as you travel home post-wedding could be a headache," says White. "If you would like to request travel-friendly gifts, consider making a registry of only gift cards or using a service like HoneyFund to have guests contribute to an experience of some kind."

"Try to keep large, expensive gifts off the registry and you may want to add a registry for the destination itself," says Ntouskas. "For instance, the St. Regis in Bora Bora hosts their own Honeymoon registry and this way you can register for experiences rather than things."

7. After the Festivities, Plan to Get Away Gracefully

After the reception, it's time to transition into honeymoon mode. But with your wedding guests crawling all over the resort, how can you break off from the gang and get a little privacy? There are a few options for stealthily starting the honeymoon without causing offense:

TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS:
"Many of your wedding guests will probably jump on the opportunity to turn your wedding into a vacation and may choose to add time before or after to extend their holiday. If you and your beloved want to get in some quality alone time, the best way to do that is to book a reservation at another resort. It's perfectly acceptable to leave for your honeymoon the afternoon after your wedding. Just make sure you say your goodbyes the night before." —Andrea Freeman

"Even when the guests and the festivities are at the same location, couples should plan in advance. Depending on budgets and location, couples can book a luxury suite at Sandals that is set apart from their guests — like our fabulous new Over the Water Villas at Sandals Royal Caribbean. Couples should plan to leave the reception with fanfare, with a send-off for the start of their 'honeymoon.' Couples can also enjoy the ultimate honeymoon hop, where the day after the wedding, they can experience another Sandals Resort." —Marsha-Ann Brown

"Communication is key. One way to make the 'break off' as seamless as possible is to list the time it'll be happening in the wedding itinerary." —Janessa White

"Host a brunch or luncheon to say thank you one last time and offer your goodbyes. It's a great way to end the trip for all your guests and gives it a little finality. I suggest moving to a different resort, moving to another island, or hopping on a train or plane to a completely different destination altogether." —Sarah Ntouskas

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