Tying the knot in a far-flung locale is romantic—but requires more planning than just buying a plane ticket and booking a hotel. Here are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind while planning a destination wedding.
Choose a location that’s easy (or easy-ish) to get to.
Sara Locke, our Chief Wedding & Honeymoon Guru here, says that sometimes clients see a beautiful photo of a place and say, “I want to get married there!” But it takes more than gorgeous scenery to make a successful wedding. “I had this one couple that came to me and they wanted to get married in Capri,” says Locke. “You have to fly to Rome, figure out how to get to Naples, then it’s a ferry—it’s a major trip. You can’t just let guests do that alone, or they will be overwhelmed.” Instead, Locke suggested Portofino or Venice, both of which are closer to an airport, meaning less transport—and headache. Sara starts by asking clients how many stopovers they are willing to make. “It’s great that you want to get married in the Maldives, but are you sure your guests will want to travel 20-plus hours to attend your wedding?” she asks clients. “That starts to bring the focus in quickly.”
Choose a package — and a planner.
When planning a wedding from far away, you’ll definitely need a wedding package and a wedding planner familiar with the area. Going with a planner will help you to personalize your wedding to your tastes. Packages, on the other hand, tend to be a bit more cookie-cutter, but with little risk of feeling that way, since the setting will still be new to your guests. “If you don’t have the help of a wedding planner, you need the package in remote properties,” says Locke. “You’re not going to be able to find the vendors.” If you do decide to hire a planner, decide on the best one for you by looking at planner websites beforehand. If you’ve already decided on your wedding location, also look for a planner who has held events in the same area—or better yet, at the same venue—since he or she will have existing relationships with nearby vendors. (Extra helpful if you don’t speak the language.)
Ask the hotel or resort about other events taking place that weekend.
While most luxury resorts wouldn’t be so tacky as to have several weddings going on at the same time, it’s worth asking if any events are taking place on the same date you plan to have your wedding. “That is absolutely a red-flag question to ask,” says Locke. “Besides asking, ‘Am I the only wedding taking place that day or weekend?’ ask if there are any other large groups. Imagine if you have a bunch of sales guys on their annual trip going bananas at the pool on your wedding weekend!”
Factor in the exchange rate.
Destination weddings have a reputation for being less expensive than weddings back home, but that’s a misconception in some cases—especially if you’re hoping to get hitched in Europe. Always convert prices into dollars so you have a real handle on how much you’re shelling out for the big day.
Mail invites early.
Some guests won’t book flights and hotel rooms until they have the official invite. We suggest mailing invitations twelve months out, instead of the standard two months. Ask for an RSVP six months before, rather than two weeks.
Plan events for the whole weekend—not just the wedding.
Check local laws before hiring vendors from the U.S.
Many couples will fly in their own photographer and videographer, and sometimes a DJ or makeup artist as well. Not all countries allow the use of an outside vendor, so check with your wedding planner or your contact at the wedding venue. In a place like Turks and Caicos, they have some pretty serious laws and controls on bringing in vendors from outside the country. You would have a hard time bringing in your own officiant and you would certainly not be allowed if there was someone at customs with six cameras and lenses. Meanwhile, in a country like Mexico, none of that exists and you can bring in whoever you want.
Read the contract. Twice.
If you have a planner, he or she will do this for you, but it can’t hurt to dot your I’s and cross your T’s. We cannot underscore enough that the contract is so important. A typical venue contract (the most important one) can be anywhere from 25 to 50 pages, and can take 4-6 weeks to negotiate. Don’t take the first version. Know where you are coming from and pay attention to things you expect. You’ll want to nail down the big things, like how dinner will be served to the little stuff, like the placement of napkins on the table at the reception. Tell them, and have it documented in writing, you want this particular flat fold or a long fold of your napkins so you don’t show up and have hideous 1980s napkins at your wedding.
Give guests extra notice.
Destination weddings require extra planning for guests, too, so it’s smart to give a bit more notice than you would for a local wedding. We find some clients plan a destination wedding because they don’t want people to come; they don’t want to invite the boss and the whole office. If you actually do want people to come, give them as much notice as possible. Even if it’s informal word of mouth, ‘We are aiming for somewhere in the Caribbean in January 2018,’ people can have it in the back of their minds that they need to save vacation days. For destination weddings that are especially far away, we recommend giving nine months to one year’s notice.
Create a Pinterest board to easily share your vision.
At high-end resorts, wedding packages are customizable. To make sure your vision is properly translated, we recommend that couples share their Pinterest boards with their wedding specialist. This way, we can make sure that this special day is all your own. Having a visual to share is particularly helpful when planning from far away, when you won’t be able to see all details in person beforehand.
Budget for flight and hotel for non-local vendors.
If you do decide to fly in your own photographer or DJ, you’ll be responsible for their travel expenses. The good news? It’s perfectly acceptable to put your vendors up in a nice but less pricey hotel than the one where the wedding is taking place. (Just make sure it’s nearby.) The extra cost can actually end up saving you money. Sometimes if you are bringing them in for the whole weekend… the photographer won’t mind shooting some extra things, or the DJ will play at the rehearsal dinner or another part of the weekend.
Leave a welcome note.
(But ditch the water bottles.) Any luxury hotel will already have water in the rooms, so giving guests a little bag with bottles of Evian isn’t going to make an impression. Instead, we recommend leaving destination-specific items guests might not have brought on the plane with them—say, bug spray and sunscreen, for a beach wedding. You can also leave a token gift that’s specific to the destination. We also recommend simply leaving a personal note. It’s nice to give to people at check-in as a welcome, we always like it as soon as they arrive to make them feel welcome. The notes should always be handwritten, or if you’re short on time (or clear penmanship), hire a calligrapher.
Invite everyone you know.
Foot the bill for your guests’ airfare (unless you want to).
Couples are not expected to pay for the guests’ accommodations or travel. It’s also not etiquette for the bride and groom to pay for flight and hotel for the wedding party—although some do. If you have guests who cannot afford the trip but it’s important to you that they attend, alleviate some of the cost by paying for a few extra rooms and have people share for the weekend. Another option that we suggest: If you are having your wedding at a luxury venue where rooms are $600 a night or some such, subsidize the cost. Hotels will be happy to let you put down a specific amount toward each room. If possible, it’s also considerate to book a less expensive, sister property nearby.
Leave guests to figure out their own transportation.
If you do have guests staying at nearby properties, it’s your responsibility to provide car or shuttle service to the main venue. You are taking people out of their comfort zone to a place they are not familiar with, and they are not going to know how to move around. Have the hotel give guests a schedule of events along with pick-up and drop-off times so that nobody misses a part of the celebration.
Spend a lot on ceremony flowers.
One of the main reasons to have a destination wedding (besides the built-in vacation) is the beautiful scenery. Many couples choose to have an outdoor ceremony, in which case, there’s little need for the elaborate floral arrangements you might have at an indoor ceremony back home.
Mess with hurricane season.
If you’re getting married in Mexico or the Caribbean, there’s not a huge chance of bad weather—unless you are planning a wedding in August, September, or October, which is the height of hurricane season. We also suggest staying clear of holidays, where both hotel and airfare tends to be higher – not to mention, it’s really busy.
Ignore the backup location.
It’s easy to get swept away by the thought of a sunset beach ceremony, but also check out a venue’s backup indoor option, should it rain on the big day. The backup plan that is inside is usually not as attractive, but by that point, there’s nothing you can do. See what options are available beforehand, and set up a clear plan B should you need it.
Mail wedding items to the venue.
Don’t plan to mail wedding items to the venue ever. Do not even send it through FedEx. You will end up paying gobs and gobs of cash on import fees. Just pay the extra $25 [per bag] to the airline, and if you need to travel with 10 extra bags, and your mom brings extra bags, and your fiancé, so be it.
Wear attire that can’t stand the heat.
If you’re getting married in the French countryside, or on a Tuscan vineyard, you’ll have a bit more flexibility depending on the season. But for a beach destination wedding, think light fabrics and colors that won’t show sweat. Linen suits for the groom [and groomsmen] are always a wonderful go-to; they look great and are light enough for grooms to get through taking photos in the sun. Silk, chiffon, or organza are ideal fabrics for the bride. If you do want a ball gown or a dress with a thicker fabric, we recommend a ceremony at sunset, which provides cooler temperatures, while maintaining the beautiful setting.