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Let’s face it: A big wedding just isn’t for everyone. Whatever your perfectly justified reason—whether you’re reluctant to be the center of attention or have had to postpone your wedding indefinitely—figuring out how to elope can quickly make the process feel more like a scary unknown than a sexy escape.
What Is Eloping?
Eloping is a marriage conducted without the knowledge of the couple's family and friends, particularly their parents. Typically, those who elope only have a ceremony and do not host a reception or celebration.
If planning your elopement is giving you those stress sweats you were trying to avoid in the first place, we're here to help. We tapped elopement and wedding planner Lindsey Nickel, founder of Lovely Day Events, and Britt Cole and Francie Dorman, founders of Mavinhouse Events, for their insight regarding the dos and don'ts of eloping.
Meet the Expert
- Lindsey Nickel is the owner and founder of Lovely Day Events, a boutique wedding planning company in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
- Britt Cole and Francie Dorman are the founders of Mavinhouse Events, a modern event planning and design firm serving clients throughout New England and New York.
Ahead, you'll find a step-by-step guide to eloping, plus etiquette tips for getting hitched on the sly.
Why Couples Elope
Is the idea of a big bridal bash just not your thing? Perhaps you and your partner are the super spontaneous types always looking for an unconventional adventure. Maybe you're trying to save money for a new life together and just realized your next beach vacation could easily pull double duty as your nuptials, too. For these reasons, among others, many couples are opting to eschew tradition in favor of a quick and swift elopement.
How to Elope
Once you've decided to elope, you'll want to follow these steps.
1. Determine a Budget
While elopements tend to be easier on the wallet than a big wedding, they aren't without their costs. Sit down with your partner and start talking numbers. How much of your savings or disposable income are you willing to allocate to this? Be realistic about your expectations and your funds, and don't forget to factor a little wiggle room for unexpected costs. Your budget will guide the rest of the process and help you navigate any difficult decisions with its firm bottom line.
2. Consider a Destination vs. Courthouse Elopement
Historically, elopements consisted of the to-be-weds running off to the courthouse for a secret civil ceremony. Courthouse elopements are still very much in fashion, with many eager partners choosing the straight-forward option of obtaining a marriage license and getting married in the same vicinity. This option is relatively cheap but doesn't entirely lend itself to spontaneity as an appointment is usually required. Adventurous or jet-set couples may favor the destination elopement alternative. This usually requires much more planning and incurs higher costs as it combines a trip with the ceremony.
3. Choose the Location
If a courthouse aesthetic just doesn't do it for you, consider what locations you're magnetized to. Perhaps there's a place that played a significant role in your relationship or holds special meaning for one of you. Or, maybe the visual appeal of a location just feels right for the occasion. Let these preferences guide you, keeping your budget in mind. "When thinking about elopement, consider a place that will have significance for you both," said the team at Mavinhouse Events. "Consider Venetsanos Winery in Santorini Island, Greece; the Sanará in Tulum, Mexico; or the Round Hill in Jamaica." Destination elopements can be as extravagant as a far-flung getaway or as close to home as, well, right in your backyard.
4. Check the Law
Regardless of the locale, the marriage needs to be legally recognized—unless you prefer a spiritual union. Research the various legal requirements, location permissions, or guidelines you may need to follow. Do you need a license? How long will it take? Are witnesses required and what are their necessary credentials? These are the questions you should be asking if you want the elopement to go off without a hitch. The planners at Mavinhouse Events also recommend "possibly booking an officiant unless a friend is ordained and can marry you (doesn't apply at the courthouse), check to see if you need a witness, and consider any waiting periods to obtain your marriage license."
5. Book Travel and Find Vendors
Do so as far in advance as possible to save money and relieve stress. While the destination of your elopement doesn't have to be an exotic faraway locale, it is something to keep in mind. Consulting with destination elopement planners can be a major asset in navigating this terrain in foreign environments.
6. Plan the Ceremony
What will you wear? Are rings your thing? How should the exchanging of vows go? Do you want a bouquet? While you may not be walking down the aisle, per se, you'll still want your highly anticipated elopement moment to be special. According to Mavinhouse Events, "Elopements are a great opportunity to steer away from tradition and pick an outfit that may be more streetwear chic. Consider tea-length dresses rather than long gowns, bold colors, or patterns rather than white. Or, a bird's cage veil rather than a long and flowy one, menswear suiting instead of a dress...the options are limitless."
7. Throw a Post-Elopement Party
Maybe that means a private celebration (just the two of you), an all-out reception with friends and family, or some combination of both. Mavinhouse Events suggests "renting out a private room in a restaurant" to celebrate with close friends and family immediately after you say "I do." Alternatively, you can always postpone the celebration for a later date. "A one-year anniversary party is a great way to host an event that feels like a reception without so much of the pressure of hosting an entire wedding," they share. "If you've gone to a destination where your friends and family aren't close, treating yourself to a fancy dinner for just the two of you can be such a treat. So many top-rated restaurants offer a chef's table where you can have a multi-course menu with wine pairings prepared and served to you specially by the chef."
When phrasing invitations, swap out “invite you to the marriage of...” for “invite you to a celebration in honor of their marriage” so guests know you’ve already signed the marriage license and that they won’t be witnessing your vows.
8. Send Those Announcements
After you’ve tied the knot, let the world know the big news. Submit a formal marriage announcement to the local paper and have cards printed with a photo and the good news to send to everyone. Mavinhouse Events shares, "Send an announcement after you've eloped to let friends and family know (you could send a picture of the two of you from your big day), plan a dinner party, and announce it to everyone there. If you have children, consider a thoughtful way to get them involved."
Do: Prepare Yourself for Family and Close Friends' Reactions
The most difficult part of eloping is the fear that your friends and family will be disappointed they were not a part of your big day. "Know that not everyone is going to support your decision, and be prepared for their reactions," Nickel says. "I recommend telling your parents before you elope to minimize hurt feelings and surprises after the fact. And try to find a way to involve your closest friends and family somehow—whether that's sharing photos with them first or maybe hosting a post-marriage reception. But, shocking your closest friends and family with a social media announcement is a huge no-no: Make sure to tell them in person and if anyone feels hurt or left out, a handwritten note can go a long way."
Don't: Forget to Take Care of All the Legal Details
Thinking of running away to Europe to elope? Don't forget to swing by your local city hall first. "Make sure you check off everything on the legal to-do list," Nickel says. "Remember, you still need an officiant and a witness to be legally married in the U.S. and many countries have different residency requirements in order to be married there (officially), so don't forget to get your marriage certificate at home before you jet off." Because marriage laws vary by state, be sure to familiarize yourself with each state's legal requirements, especially if you're planning a cross-country elopement. Alternatively, if you're eloping abroad, there's a guide for those stipulations as well.
Do: Hire a Local Planner, Photographer, and Videographer
Just because you're having an intimate wedding doesn't mean you're completely on your own. "While many elopements, by nature, tend to be last-minute decisions, I highly advise couples not just to wing it. Hiring a local wedding planner can take a lot of stress off the couple," Nickel says. "Plus, a planner can suggest really special or under-the-radar places that you might not already know. Also, make sure you hire both a photographer and a videographer to document your day. This is especially important for elopements because it allows you to share the moment with friends and family who could not be there."
Don't: Be Afraid to Ask Vendors for Special Pricing
Due to the smaller scale and shorter time commitments, most vendors will offer special rates or à la carte pricing for elopements, Nickel says. "Especially if you're getting married on an off-day—say a Tuesday at 11 a.m.—don't be afraid to negotiate." Oftentimes, you can also find bargain deals simply by failing to mention you're a bride or groom. Say the word "wedding" and many vendors reckon they can jack up the price for their services. Instead of requesting a "wedding" look, you may be able to save money by asking for a "special occasion" hairdo.
Do: Choose Guests or Witnesses
Guests at an elopement? You bet! Whether your state requires witnesses or you just want a few close friends or family members to be part of the moment, you can definitely still bring some friends along and call it an elopement. The rule of thumb is to keep the count under a dozen. Of course, if you’re inviting guests, you’ll want to make more formal plans and can’t simply pop into the courthouse on a whim.
Don't: Shirk Budgeting Responsibly
Even if you manage to wrangle some discounted quotes from vendors, once you factor in the travel and accommodations, your elopement can run you that small wedding cost you were attempting to run away from in the first place. Be sure to sit down with your partner and discuss any financial concerns. Assuming you've involved your parents from the start, they may be willing to offer some monetary support. "Inviting your parents to your elopement if you're not set on it just being the two of you, is another way to involve them and lessen bruised emotions," Nickel says.
Do: Send a Marriage Announcement
Send a marriage announcement after your elopement, Nickel advises. "Some people might be wondering what happened to your engagement or if they're getting a save-the-date soon. A marriage announcement lets people know that you've already gotten hitched and it's the perfect opportunity to showcase some of those gorgeous intimate photos you captured on your special day." And of course, there's always the chance your recipients will send back a reply in the form of presents.
Don't: Downplay Your Elopement
Just because you're eloping doesn't mean that the day isn't special—it's still your wedding and there is reason to be excited and celebrate. "Don't forget to indulge in the bridal aspects of your day," Nickel says. "Get a special dress and a bouquet and perhaps even set up a table, complete with your dream centerpiece, a bottle of champagne, and dinner for two."