Back in the day, wedding receptions were pretty streamlined. After the ceremony, there was a concise four-hour event featuring cocktails, dinner, cake, and a little dancing—all done and getting guests home before bedtime. Today, though, weddings are a production (and a serious party!) with a timeline that might start at 4:30 p.m. and go until midnight or later. It’s a full day’s commitment, so we’ve talked to the experts about when to arrive and how long you should stay.
According to traditional etiquette, guests are supposed to stay at the reception until the couple makes their grand exit, with the party winding down after they’ve left. In the days of short receptions, that wasn’t too bad. But these days, the happy couple doesn’t cut out early—they’re the last ones on the dance floor! And if there’s an after-party planned, that could leave you waiting until 2 a.m. to head back to your room. Worried about a late night? Whether some of your guests are a little older or just aren’t night owls, there are a few cues to look out for during the reception that will tell them when it’s appropriate to take your leave.
First, stay through dinner. Unless there’s an urgent need for you to depart, as an invited guest it is impolite to head out before the last course has been served. Enjoy your meal and a glass of wine, chat with your tablemates, and hang around until dancing starts. If the couple is making the rounds between tables, you’ll definitely want to stay so they can say hello and thank you for coming.
Next, take note of those big traditions—namely the first dance, parent dances, toasts, and cake-cutting. The order and timing of events will vary from wedding to wedding. Some couples choose to save all of those moments until after dinner, while others might cut the cake immediately upon entering the reception or have toasts while guests are finishing their entrées. Pay attention, and if those boxes have been checked, you’re free to go! Cake cutting was traditionally the very last event before the newlyweds made their getaway. In today’s timelines, it still serves as a signal that you’re welcome to leave whenever you’re ready. But before you do, don’t forget to have a piece of cake: it’s good luck for the newlyweds!
And of course, a wedding is not the place for a quiet exit. Find the happy couple and give them a hug, and then seek out their parents so you can thank them for having you. Now head back to your room and take those bobby pins out of your hair!
If you’re concerned that it will be a particularly long day, you might be tempted to skip the ceremony and only head to the reception. We’ve got three words for you: don’t do it. The party may be fun, but the main event at a wedding is the ceremony, so if you’re only going to one event, that should be it. You’ve been invited to witness this major commitment, so be there! Skipping the ceremony sends a message to the couple that you care more about the money they’ve spent on food and booze than on the promises they are making to one another. Instead, arrive for the main event (15 minutes before the ceremony start time listed on the invitation), stay as long as you can, and then head home when you’ve had a long enough day. Hey, you might be having so much fun that you will be the one closing down the after-party!