What to Know When Planning a Destination Wedding

From timing it right to picking the perfect spot.
by The Knot
Bride and groom walking on top of mountain
Sara Hasstedt

There's something special about getting married in that far-flung destination where your partner proposed, against a backdrop of mountains or in the sand someplace tropical. As gorgeous as these locales are, don't forget the legwork that goes into planning a destination wedding. After all, there’s more to take into account than the venue itself (although that definitely holds a high spot on the list of priorities). The timing of your ceremony, the weather at the location, and guests’ availability to travel are all concerns every couple planning a destination wedding has to consider. But with a little know-how, and possibly a planning service like Destination Weddings to help you iron out the details, you can plan a memorable getaway for you and your guests. Follow these tips to help you pull off a destination wedding to remember.

1. Pick the Perfect Spot

Your wedding location determines not only the mood (rustic, sophisticated, beachy), but also the travel, time and budget required to pull it off. Your wedding elements—not just location, but also activities and overall vibe—should say something about your shared style and passions so that your guests head home from your wedding weekend saying, "That was so them!" Did the proposal happen on vacation in Paris? Then why not host an intimate wedding in the City of Lights? Are you foodies? Think about gathering your crew in a place like Tuscany or California wine country. Was your first vacation somewhere tropical? Invite friends and family to a resort in Mexico, the Caribbean or Hawaii, and consider enlisting the help of a wedding planning service like Destination Weddings to help make your vision come to life—at no cost to you. They partner with over 1,200 hotels and resorts to connect couples with certified destination wedding specialists for complimentary planning assistance and exclusive savings.

2. Time It Right

Unfortunately, the best weather in popular vacation destinations tends to correlate with tourist season, when there are typically more crowds, fewer hotel and venue availabilities, and higher rates all around. If you’re planning a destination wedding during this peak time, book your venue and reserve your room blocks through an online booking service like Hotel Planner as soon as possible. If you opt for the shoulder season, you may be able to save yourself and your guests some money and still enjoy great weather. While the off-season will mean fewer crowds, the weather can be a gamble (consider the Caribbean’s hurricane season and the summer heat waves that occur in parts of Europe), and you may find that many stores, venues and vendors close up shop.

3. Give Everyone a Heads-Up

Tell your bridal party you’re planning a destination wedding before you ask them to stand by your side, so they can gracefully decline if finances are tight. Besides those VIPs, it’s also a good idea to give the rest of your guest list plenty of notice so they can get the best deals on flights and accommodations before prices skyrocket. Send out save-the-dates at least eight months in advance, but don't be upset if some of your closest friends or relatives don't attend. While you are, in a sense, footing some of the food bills, their fees for travel, hotel and car rental can really add up. Although your wedding is a mini-vacation for you, it may not be the one they want to take!

4. Take a Trip

We seriously can't recommend this enough: Take at least one planning trip and if you can swing it, two or three is ideal. On the first trip, you'll need to scout and secure your key venues—ceremony and reception spaces, hotels for guests, a rehearsal dinner venue—and local suppliers such as caterers, florists and photographers. The seemingly daunting process of narrowing down your options and booking some of these categories can be done for you with the help of a planning service like Destination Weddings. After you've made your selections (perhaps during a second trip), you may want to schedule "tastings" with your caterer, see sample bouquets from the florist, plan a hair and makeup session with a local salon, and organize activities (golf, tennis, walking tours, museums) for your guests.

5. Factor in the Extra Expenses

If done right, a destination wedding can cost no more—and maybe even less—than hosting the same party at home (depending on where you live, of course). For example, if you live in a US metropolitan city where event facilities are in high demand, like New York City, then holding your wedding in Mexico will likely be less expensive than doing it at home, even when you factor in airfare, hotel expenses and planning trips. (You’ll also want to check out Destination Weddings' preferred partners to make sure you don’t miss out on opportunities for exclusive savings on wedding packages.) Still, there are extra expenses you'll need to factor in for any destination wedding, including importing key vendors and décor, welcome bags for guests, additional activities for guests, and travel costs for you and your immediate families (including those planning trips, not just the wedding weekend). Keep in mind you may choose to fly in certain vendors, in which case you’ll have to pay for their travel and accommodations too. So make a budget that’s realistic and factors in all of these extra costs. 

6. Research Local Marriage Requirements

The legal side of tying the knot in a different country can be complicated. Many countries have a "residency requirement" (for example, 24 hours in Turks and Caicos and 7 days in England), which means you must reside in the country for a certain length of time before your ceremony. Although this is usually just a few days, it can be longer. France, for example, requires you to arrive at least 40 days before you marry! If it's next to impossible to do it at your chosen destination and have it legally recognized, consider making it official (by government standards) before you travel. That way your wedding day will be in front of your guests, but there's no doubt it's the real deal.

7. Get Help

Control freaks, beware: If you're hosting a wedding in a distant locale, you will need to entrust at least part of the planning to someone else's capable hands. Many resorts include a wedding specialist in their wedding packages who can shoulder the burden of researching and securing local vendors (especially valuable if there’s a language barrier), dealing with logistics (like tent rentals and lighting), and handling any last-minute fires that may start in the weeks leading up to the wedding. You can also get a coordinator to be your behind-the-scenes go-to at the destination, creating gift bags for guests, greeting everyone at the airport, keeping people busy with fun activities once there, vetting special requests (babysitters, dry cleaners, and so on), and getting everyone where they need to be on time. Generally speaking, a local planner connected with your venue is your best bet, as they can be your man-on-the-ground when you can't be there. But if you prefer to go with a planner from back home, make sure they have experience planning weddings in your chosen destination and expect to cover his or her transportation costs for planning visits and the actual wedding.

8. Be Patient

Don't keep a constant eye on the clock. Remember that many tropical islands run on "island time"—things happen when they happen—so don't mistake a vendor's laid-back attitude for incompetence. Avoid the temptation to micromanage from afar. Instead, schedule regular check-ins and then trust your vendors to work their magic.

9. Vet Vendors Carefully

While you can view vendors' portfolios online and check references, it's especially important that you're comfortable with all your vendors. You'll be leaving a lot in their hands, so it's important you trust those hands are capable. That's why we strongly suggest making at least one planning trip to meet with potential vendors. If you must hire your vendors unseen, schedule a video chat so you can get a sense for a potential vendor's demeanor and personality before you sign a contract. Your wedding specialist can screen and meet with potential vendors on your behalf and brief you on your options as well. Another option: Bring pros you trust from home to handle critical aspects such as the wedding photography, hair and makeup, and design (lighting, flowers), and even work with local vendors in a supervisory capacity to avoid any communication mishaps. Just remember: You'll have to cover their travel and lodging expenses.

10. Make Guests Feel Welcome

Your friends and family are eager to celebrate with you, and creating a wedding website will make it easy for them to find all the important details in one place—like group rates for flights and hotel rooms—how to get to and from the airport, a list of nearby activities they can do on their own and an itinerary of the weekend’s events, like the rehearsal or welcome dinner and next-day brunch. Upon arrival, deliver welcome bags to their rooms, full of essentials for the trip, like sunscreen, water and bug spray.

11. Dress the Part

Don't forget to consider the climate when choosing your wedding attire—and the dress code for each of your events. You'll be swimming in sweat if you pair your satin ball gown or wool suit with the humidity that comes with a tropical outdoor venue, and it’s considerate to give guests a heads-up on appropriate footwear if you’ll be exchanging vows on the sand. 

12. Consider the Elements

It's essential to think of the unexpected when planning a destination wedding. Speak with your planner or venue about lighting: If your reception is outdoors, you'll need backup for when the sun goes down (and for safety too). Think about stringing market lights or adding a romantic vibe with hundreds of candles. And while crashing waves are peaceful, your guests want to hear your vows. Consider lapel mics, and make sure the DJ or band has enough equipment (and power) to entertain all night as well. Besides that, think about what else you can provide to make it a better experience for your guests, like flip-flops for your oceanfront ceremony or umbrellas in the event of a late afternoon drizzle.

13. Be Decisive

Not to stress you out, but you're basically competing in the Olympics of wedding planning—the long-distance affair. You need to be twice as organized as a local couple and pre-think everything, because you won't have much time to make up your mind, especially if you can only do one or two planning trips. So do your research, set up necessary appointments and have any preliminary meetings by email or phone, so that once you’re in person you can focus on decision-making, like tasting the cake. (Or let a Destination Weddings specialist handle most of these details for you.) If you don’t allow the long distance to hinder your vision, it’ll make the whole planning process a lot smoother—and less stressful.

*Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, some of which may be sponsored by paying vendors.

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