Everything You Need to Know to Plan a Destination Wedding

bride and groom in cabo

Photo by Laurken Kendall; Floral design by Emporio Arte Floral

Having a destination wedding miles away from home means you're in for a much more intimate ceremony and can basically enjoy a two-for-one wedding and honeymoon. But planning such an event is no easy feat. Before jetting off to a foreign land to marry your love, there are some important details to consider. We sat down with planner Laurie Arons, who knows a thing or two about throwing a fantastic wedding. Whether you’ve decided on a tropical celebration in the Bahamas, an island fête in Bali, or a romantic getaway in Tuscany, we've got all of the bases covered, from choosing the perfect venue to coordinating every last detail on the big day.

Meet the Expert

Laurie Arons is a San Francisco–based planner who has over 27 years of experience in the industry. She has planned over 600 weddings and events and hosts an annual masterclass for wedding planners.

Here’s everything you need to know to plan a destination wedding.

Destination Wedding Etiquette

When should I have my destination wedding?

This depends on your schedules and availability, but seasonal changes make a major impact. If you want to take advantage of the local environment with outdoor festivities, check the average rainfall by month and ensure that you're not positioning your event right in the middle of hurricane or monsoon season. Be aware of fluctuations in tourism; high season translates to expensive booking rates and congested sights, but low season can mean empty streets and closed hotspots.

When do I notify guests of my destination wedding?

Save-the-dates should be mailed eight to 12 months before the wedding. "The official invites should go out no later than three to four months before," notes Arons. An extra-long lead time will allow guests to make arrangements but can be a bit laxer for domestic destinations.

Who pays for guest accommodations?

Guests are traditionally expected to cover their personal lodging and transportation expenses, but it's important that you make this as gracefully clear as possible. Tactfully lay out expectations by providing recommendations to accommodations or booking websites. If you've booked a hotel room block, emphasize that each guest needs to reserve their own room within it. Your wedding website and save-the-dates will be your best tools in getting the word out.

Do I need to help guests book travel?

You don't need to book anyone's travel, but it's a nice gesture to make the process easier. Enlisting a travel agent can help lighten the load by taking over group reservations, inputting everyone's travel info, and scoring the best deals. They may also be able to snag upgrades and luxury treatments. Start a Facebook group or group chat so everyone can share flight deals or make plans to travel together. Providing a wedding itinerary will keep everyone on schedule and fully informed.

Do I need a registry for a destination wedding?

Given the increased costs of guests attending the wedding, you may want to consider scrapping gifts. Utilize the invitations or wedding website to let everyone know that their presence is the best gift. If you prefer to have a registry, be sure to have gifts shipped to your home rather than brought to the venue or opt for virtual gifts like gift cards or donations to a honeymoon fund. Some resorts even have their own honeymoon registries for on-site experiences.

Destination Wedding Planning Tips

Choose a location.

When deciding on a destination, keep in mind that it must be safe and have all of the resources you need. That charming beach town where you spent your childhood summers won’t work if its one hotel can’t accommodate all your guests or any of their accessibility or childcare requirements. Also, ensure there are no recent travel warnings, political issues, or health concerns in the region—if there are and you remain undeterred, make sure your guests are fully informed—and none of your guests will feel uncomfortable due to their religion, gender, or sexual preference.

Weigh how feasible the travel would be for your oldest or least jet-set guest. A sequence of planes, trains, and automobiles may be impossible for your elderly grandparents or pregnant sister-in-law.

Consider guest lodging.

While etiquette does not require you to cover the cost of accommodations, it's a thoughtful gesture to provide enough recommendations to satisfy a range of budgets. "It's best to offer several options at different price points," suggests Arons. "But keep all hotel suggestions within a ten-minute radius, 15 tops." Setting up room blocks can help you negotiate a lower price and consolidate everyone in one vicinity. Don’t set your date until you’re sure there’s room availability for everyone.

Go local to save big.

Arons recommends slashing your budget by incorporating local blooms—think olive branches in Tuscany or exotic flowers in the tropics—and serving local specialties like conch fritters in the Bahamas or carnitas in Cabo to cut costs. This also creates an immersive experience in the very environment that captured your heart. You're shelling out big for this destination, so you might as well fully embrace everything it has to offer.

Hire a pro.

Find a planner or coordinator that specializes in destination weddings. This way, instead of spending hours on phone calls trying to overcome a language barrier or making executive decisions from miles away, you have an expert taking care of it all for you. If a planner isn’t in your budget, look for a resort with a strong on-site coordinator.

Visit in advance.

Ideally, you’ll see your venue once before booking and again three to four months before the wedding to finalize details. If a second trip isn't possible, arrive at least five days early to make those decisions and have hair and makeup trials.

Meet vendors.

Prior to your first site visit, set up meetings with the better-known florists and rental companies in your destination. Arons suggests asking your venue for referrals; you might uncover local talent you didn’t know about—and some savings to boot. If you're bringing specialists from home, expect to cover their travel and lodging costs. Arons notes a clean, safe hotel within 30 minutes of your venue is a must. Negotiate these expenses up front so things don’t get out of control.

Plan additional events.

Extend all the fun of the big day by expanding the itinerary. Guests will enjoy some extra activities to make their trip even more worthwhile. You don't have to go for a full wedding weekend, but a welcome party to greet everyone is a popular choice (either blending with or following the rehearsal dinner). Some couples include interactive activities that showcase the locale like group tours or tastings. You can also close the wedding weekend with flair and say your farewells at a post-wedding brunch or luncheon.

Secure wedding insurance.

When it comes to getting married in a foreign locale, it's best to expect the unexpected. Investing in wedding insurance will help protect your financial investment and offer some emotional assurance—plus, some venues even require it. It's best to sign up well in advance (though some companies can accommodate a tight turnaround) and get crystal-clear on what policies there are and the type of coverage you're signing up for.

Consider unexpected expenses.

Destination weddings get an interesting rap for being more budget-friendly, but this isn't always the case. Be sure to include wiggle room in your budget for unexpected expenses, such as non-vendor tips, airport transfers, shipping costs, and baggage fees. Plus, adding that welcome party or day-after brunch will definitely cost you. Don't forget to let your credit card company know of your travel intentions so you don't get hit with foreign transaction fees or worse—a declined card—at the final hour. You'll want to carry some cash with you (in the local currency) as well.

Check local marriage requirements.

Making a marriage legal isn't quite as easy as hiring an officiant. Countries have different requirements necessitating a whole myriad of paperwork from birth and medical certificates, letters of intent, and even proof of residency. Educate yourself far in advance to ensure you have enough time to get everything together. In some cases, it may be easier to get a domestic marriage certificate (these vary by state) and have a civil ceremony prior to your departure.

Secure passports and other documents.

A valid passport is a given for international travel, and you'll at the very least need a driver's license for domestic destinations. Double-check all expiration dates as soon as you choose your wedding date and location, then check again! Depending on the country, additional information, such as a list of previously visited countries, health records, or vaccinations, may be required.

Create welcome bags.

Show some hospitality by offering welcome bags once guests arrive. Fill them with items that speak to the locale or that will provide some comfort for their stay. Things like water bottles, snacks, maps, and aspirin are great additions. Warm-weather destinations call for sunscreen or aloe vera while alpine environments are conducive to hot cocoa mixes or mittens.

Stuff that suitcase.

"I’ve yet to find a destination outside the continental U.S. that has the same quality and selection of rental linens," says Arons. "Shipping overseas is risky and expensive, so I always pack as much as possible into checked luggage." Anything that can be shipped, should be sent out no less than a month before the big day and addressed to a specific individual (like your planner) rather than just the hotel.

Tailor your wedding dress to the destination.

Carefully consider the climate and terrain of your wedding day when dress shopping. Breathable fabrics work best in hot, humid locations. Lightweight lace in Mexico is stunning as is an embellished ball gown at a villa in France. And don't think you'll be checking that dress in a suitcase! Arons recommends carrying your dress on the plane, even if it means having to fold it. (Just make sure someone at the other end can press and steam it.)

Get away gracefully.

Transitioning into honeymoon mode may require a bit of finesse, especially if you've decided to stay at the same resort as guests who have extended their own travels. Be clear about your departure (even if you're staying on the property) by saying your goodbyes amidst the fanfare of a post-reception send-off or next-day brunch. If it's privacy you seek (without offending your loved ones), move to a different section of the hotel. Some resorts have elevated accommodations (think: luxury suites, over-water villas, or independent cabins) that are positioned separately from other rooms.

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