Having a destination wedding miles away from home means you're in for a much more intimate ceremony and that you can basically enjoy a two-for-one wedding and honeymoon. However, 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.
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.
- Sarah Chancey is the founder and creative director of Chancey Charm, a full-service wedding planning company that specializes in weddings in the U.S. and internationally. She and Skylar Albritton, lead destination planner and designer, are wedding industry veterans with more than years of experience.
- Darryl Moore is the founder and creative director of D'Concierge Weddings. He has over 10 years of wedding planning experience, and has worked with celebrities, athletes, and entertainers around the world.
According to Sarah Chancey, founder and creative director of Chancey Charm, destination nuptials are a great option for couples who are willing to take a laissez-faire approach to wedding planning. "What I see a lot with weddings that are outside of the U.S. is that the couple can quickly become impatient with the response of vendors and relaxed mindsets," the pro shares. "A more relaxed perspective is very common with our international destination weddings, so make sure that you're okay with going with the flow, even up to the wedding day."
You need more than just a relaxed mindset, though. When planning a destination wedding, there are a number of other factors to consider, and we outline everything you need to know here.
Destination Wedding Planning Guide
"Destination weddings are the best fit for couples who are ready to host and celebrate with their guests in a unique location," shares Skylar Albritton, lead destination planner and designer at Chancey Charm. "They also can be great for couples with friends spread out across the country or world—if everyone must travel, why not make it somewhere you're all excited to visit?" 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 you covered with every detail you need to know when planning a destination wedding.
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 it can't accommodate all your guests or any of their accessibility or childcare requirements.
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 that 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.
Hire a Professional
Find a planner or coordinator that specializes in destination weddings. "Hire a planner! I know you probably expected that, but it's true. If you're planning a destination wedding, you're going to need feet on the ground before you arrive, finalizing all of the last-minute details so you and your guests can arrive stress-free," shares Chauncey.
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. Albritton even recommends finding a planner with knowledge of "the locations, venues, and planning outlook," before you book your venue. However, if a planner isn't in your budget, look for a resort with a strong on-site coordinator.
Consider Guest Lodging
While etiquette does not require you to cover the cost of accommodations, it's a thoughtful gesture to provide recommendations that satisfy a range of budgets. "It's best to offer several options at different price points," suggests Laurie Arons, founder of Laurie Arons Special Events. "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. Also, 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.
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.
"I would surely encourage couples to visit the destination at least once and give themselves two to three days [at the destination] if scheduling allows," shares Darryl Moore, founder of D'Concierge Weddings. He also recommends visiting during peak and non-peak hours, from Thursday to Sunday, in order to get a sense of the overall vibe the location has to offer. "This is the perfect time for you to see and feel what your guests will feel and experience. If you can't make it, hire a professional who is great at details and communication," he adds.
Meet Your 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 your celebration by planning additional events outside of the big day. Guests will always enjoy some extra activities. While you don't have to go-all out with a full weekend of events, a welcome party to greet everyone is a popular choice. Depending on your budget, you can combine this with your rehearsal dinner or host a more informal gathering for your larger group after.
Some couples also include interactive activities that showcase the locale, like group tours or tastings. You can even close the wedding weekend with flair and say your farewells at a post-wedding brunch or luncheon.
All that said, additional events aren't required, and you should do whatever works within your budget and timeline. "A beautiful welcome reception and meet and greet would be a nice experience for the two families to bond and get to know each other," says Moore. "But obviously, there is no right or wrong way to plan your wedding. It's your moment and money to do whatever you like."
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. Sign up well in advance of your wedding day (while some companies can accommodate a tight turnaround, it's best to have this sorted early), and get crystal clear on what policies there are and the type of coverage you're agreeing to.
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 in a foreign country isn't quite as easy as hiring an officiant. Different 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 at the very least you'll need a current 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 Your 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.
Choose an Appropriate Dress
Carefully consider the climate and terrain of your wedding day when dress shopping. Breathable fabrics work best in hot, humid locations, while dresses made from thick materials are better suited for cooler climates. Lightweight lace in Mexico is stunning as is an embellished ballgown at a villa in France.
And don't even think about checking your 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.
The Top Six Destination Planning Questions, Answered
To help further guide you, our experts have answered the top questions couples have when planning a destination wedding.
When should I have my destination wedding?
This depends on your schedule 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 this can be a bit laxer for domestic destinations.
Who pays for guest accommodations?
"Usually, guests are expected to cover their own accommodations, so we recommend providing a few options at a variety of price points," shares Albritton. However, it's important to make this as gracefully clear as possible. 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 for 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 be able to snag upgrades and luxury treatments, too.
You can also 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.
What COVID precautions should I take for my destination wedding?
"This is two-fold. From a safety standpoint, if you want guests to adhere to certain standards (vaccinations, masks, etc.), clear, consistent communication is key," advises Albritton. "Also, from a logistics standpoint, as we continue to see travel increase, we're seeing higher "yes" RSVPs than in the past for destination weddings. Definitely don't invite more guests than you are ready to host."
Moore agrees and also advises couples to encourage their guests to get tested before the celebrations begin. "All of our destination weddings performed this year [had] on-site rapid testing the day before the wedding, and everyone was required to test. No test, no entry," he shares.