HOW: My tips and other sites with help for far-off weddings

If you didn't arrive here via my Specialty Wedding Page you might want to check it out.

So you're planning a destination wedding? Congratulations. That's what we did, and it was a decision we'll never regret! HOWEVER, planning a destination wedding presents some unique challenges. You are doing it long-distance, often without local contacts. You might also be planning a smaller wedding, which is easier in some ways but has its own special considerations. Below are some of my thoughts on various aspects of the planning process. I know it's a lot of text, but hopefully you can find some helpful nuggets.

WHERE should we go?

"Whoa," you say. "I don't even know where to GO to have a destination wedding." Aha. Well, that's the fun part: Deciding! There are a couple of considerations in choosing a place:

All well and good, you say, but how do I know which places have easy marriage laws? How do I know what neat places have good resources for destination weddings? Well, one place to start (although it's outdated) is my other Destination Wedding page which covers the "WHERE". Its numerous listings may give you ideas, put you in touch with possible planners, and make it clearer what places have workable marriage laws. There are resorts and planners and hotels listed which have hosted destination weddings. There are also travel agents listed who plan in lots of places. And there are sites with data about marriage laws. The list includes places all over the world, and a lot in the United States. Also, keep reading--other ideas and sources of info are on this page.

How to Go About Planning this Thing

Assuming you've chosen a location, now let's think about how you might get it done:

Option A: Wedding Consultant

One option is to hire a wedding consultant who is familiar with the location where you wish to get married. This might be a consultant is located in the place where you're getting married, or a travel agent or other person who has experience in planning destination weddings. Don't assume that any wedding or travel consultant can automatically meet your needs. A consultant who is wonderful for local couples may not be as adept in helping you long-distance. Luckily, in some locales there are wedding consultants whose primary business is working with couples from out-of-town. They are good about faxing, mailing photos, and taking other special steps to help you. There are also consultants who aren't limited to any particular wedding location, but regularly handle destination weddings.

All told, this may be the most-hassle free way to plan a wedding, but it will add to your cost. For example, they may charge a flat fee, or a surcharge on the cost of all services which they contract for you. It goes without saying: get references for anyone you work with.

Option B: Hospitality Providers

The second option is to find a hotel or inn or bed & breakfast that offers wedding planning services for guests who stay there. You'd be surprised how many of these places have hosted weddings in the past, and may even have a salesperson who helps with the wedding planning, often for a ceremony and reception right on site. It's possible that a hotel offers this service but doesn't advertise it widely. It's worth asking about--ask any hotel, resort, inn, or B & B that you're interested in.

Option C: Wedding Chapel

Another option is to find a wedding chapel at the location you're interested in. These tend to have complete packages with photographs, flowers, music, officiant, even license built right in. Your job is usually limited to showing up. This is easiest, and may even be the least expensive. However, you don't have control over some of the details, and you might be put off by the in-and-out nature of the ceremony.

Option D: Do It Yourself

The fourth option is to do it yourself. You find the florist, the officiant, the ceremony site, the baker, the music, the photographer and so on by yourself. This is probably the toughest way to do it, but you get to make all the decisions. If you're a control freak about details it might be the one you opt for. If you go this route, I'd try hard to find some sort of local contact--someone who knows some of the local businesses but who won't profit personally from any referrals. Here's where setting up your lodging first can be a help--the hotel staff or innkeeper may be a great source. Ask at the travel newsgroups, or wedding newsgroups. Check with your college's alumni office--see if a fellow graduate lives there. Ask friends and relatives. You never know how you'll find someone who can make a few recommendations.

Speaking of local contacts...

That's good advice even if you're not planning it yourself: local contacts are great if you can find one. It can be reassuring to be able to ask someone else about the reputation of a provider and give a knowledgable second opinion.

As for me....

I went with a combination of several methods. I wanted to "do it myself" for my Charleston wedding, and had an excellent start on that. I had a few local contacts and quite a few web resources. Furthermore, my initial contacts with wedding coordinators turned me off. However, I eventually found it too daunting to try to figure out a ceremony site and officiant. So when two different Bed & Breakfasts gave me an unsolicited recommendation of one of the planners, I began to work with her. She seemed to know what she was doing, so my stress level plummeted. I took care of some details myself, leaned on some helpful locals for other things, and left a few important things to her.

Getting Information

How do you get information, whether that be finding a planner or chapel or setting up all the details yourself? Here are some suggestions:

The Web Obviously you're HERE, so this is something of a no-brainer. I encourage you to do your own searches. Many businesses have their own webpages, plus there are many "local wedding guides" with big resource lists. There are also the internet yellow pages, newsgroups, and the personal pages of brides who have already had weddings at your desired place! Dig, dig, dig--a lot of this stuff takes some tenacity to find. Google is great; so is dogpile and ixquick.

Books Back when I was planning, there was only one good destination wedding books out there to help: Far & Away Weddings by Denise and Alan Fields. It's now out of print, but your library may have it; here's a website for it. (BTW, you may also find their book "Bridal Bargains" a must-read, too). Modern Bride also publishes a book called "Honeymoons & Weddings Away" that is less useful but worth a browse. I have also been told of a series of books called "Here Comes the Guide" which cover Hawaii and California. I haven't seen one myself to see what they offer.

Travel Guides You may also find some help in travel guides. For example, when browsing through Frommer's pocket guide to Charleston, SC, I found a tiny inset box about getting married in Charleston, which led me to one of planners I considered. It was just a tiny nugget of info, but it was a good lead.

Word of Mouth Let people know what you are planning to do. Help may come out of the woodwork! You never know who among your friends and colleagues might know someone who did the same thing you're contemplating.

Honeymoon Spots Given the growing popularity of "weddingmoons" (wedding + honeymoon at the same spot), a number of resorts offer wedding packages. They've got the chapel or some other site right there and coordinate the other services you need. Disney and Sandals are just two examples. So instead of zeroing in on "weddings" when you look for info, try asking about "honeymoons." Travel guides, websites, books and travel agents who provide info on honeymoon spots may be able to help.

Some Other Thoughts--in random order

Be Creative A destination wedding really opens up some possibilities. If you still want to have a fairytale wedding, then go for it. But if you're open to other options, great. Simply by having a destination wedding, you're not doing the conventional. You've already altered people's expectations, so you might be less likely to feel bound to a wedding template. And if your setting is particularly nice, you may be able to simplify other aspects of your wedding. For example, we got married in a beautiful historic inn, which needed no additional decoration or flowers. We saw some weddings in Jamaica where the natural flowers and outdoor setting were so beautiful, just having a bride and groom and officiant looked perfect. Whether you choose to simplify or not, do feel free to rethink some of the typical wedding traditions.

Send a Save the Date Letter If you are having guests, consider a "Save the Date" letter. Invitations to traditional weddings are supposed to be sent 4-6 weeks before the event. But more lead time is helpful. Your guests might also want to ask for vacation time to better enjoy the special place you've chosen! In some areas, accommodations fill up way in advance. For all these reasons, you should consider getting in touch with your guests early. A friendly little form letter with pertinent info (place and date) will do nicely. If you've begun to set up accommodations, include that too, along with any other travel info. Otherwise, promise to get back to them later with that information. Would you like to see an example? Here's our Save the Date letter.

Let Some Things Go Ideally, this destination wedding should be a vacation for you, too. Don't get so caught up in little details that you can't enjoy the weekend in a special place. Figure out what's important to you, and label the rest of it "small stuff" that you won't sweat. That will free you up to sightsee, relax, play, and join in what your guests are doing!

Do As Much As You Can Before You Go If you can, get wedding details finished up while you are still at home. For example, I decided to have silk flowers made at home and shipped to the wedding site. It was one less thing to worry about that weekend--and I already knew they were exactly as I wanted them. I also planned my wedding hairstyle before I went, so I would not have to rely on an unknown stylist when I got there. Of course, you might choose different things to "do ahead" -- do what works for you!

Plan Your Packing Get advice from your dressmaker or retailer on how a dress should be packed for travel. Make sure you have the right-sized suitcase or box ahead of time. If you're flying, plan to carry it on if you can, along with any other wedding apparel you'd find hard to replace on short notice! We found that packing for the wedding AND the honeymoon added up to a lot of luggage. If you can, farm out some of your important things to guests and family who are traveling down there. If you are shipping anything, leave extra time. I shipped my flowers down ahead of time, and they took over TEN days. I got some grey hairs wondering why they weren't there yet. They made it for the wedding, but it was close.

Don't Overplan for Your Guests You've probably gone to a lot of trouble to choose a nice place to get married. Let your guests enjoy it! Don't plan so many get-togethers, family dinners, rehearsal dinners, and so on that your family and friends have no free time. We did plan a few things on different nights, to guarantee that we'd spend quality time with different groups of our guests, but no one (save us) had something wedding-related planned EVERY night. We had one family dinner on one night, a parents' dinner the next night, followed by a night out with friends only. We skipped a rehearsal dinner. I know that it has become a nice tradition for people to plan huge wedding-related activities and social gatherings all weekend, and I think that's super when you have a bunch of people in your hometown who otherwise wouldn't have much to do. But in your case, your location can do a lot of the entertaining for you--and you should let it!

What about the people who won't be there? When you have a destination wedding, you're probably going to leave a lot of people out. That might be by design, or just an unfortunate circumstance of getting married far away. There are ways to include them. One option is to have a reception at some point after the wedding. You can plan something very much like a traditional wedding reception (formal invitations, cakecutting, dancing, even wedding attire) or something more like a party. We had two, one an open house in my hometown, the other a more formal catered party at my husband's parents' home. We invited the local people who would have been invited to the wedding had we held it in those towns. We brought our wedding photos to both, and I'd carefully prepared them in a scrapbook with good labels and captions.

While we're on this topic: Should you send an invitation to people you know won't be able to make the trip? Will it look like you're just grubbing for a gift, or will it tell them they are an important person to you? Will they feel you expect them to be there, or will they understand it is symbolic? You should probably discuss this with those close to you. In our case, we decided to invite only those people we figured would come. We sent announcements (see below) to everyone else. I think our friends and family understood about not getting an invitation. But it felt weird not to send one to some of my relatives.

Consider using announcements You don't see too many announcements mailed these days, because most people use their invitation to "announce" their marriage. But they are a great way to let important people know you've been married! Announcements are very similar in appearance to invitations--just the wording (and the timing) are different. You send these after the wedding takes place. The format generally lists the location your wedding took place, so rest assured that recipients will understand why they weren't invited.

What about showers? And gifts from others who are not invited?As modern wedding traditions have evolved, we have tied wedding gifts to wedding invitations. For example, etiquette holds that those who are invited to a shower should also be invited to the wedding. If you have a limited guest list, that can make showers (and other times you receive wedding gifts) feel awkward. However, please realize that many people give gifts simply because they are happy for you and that is their traditional way to celebrate the marriage of someone they care about. We received many gifts from people after we sent out the announcements (even though this wasn't expected). And I--the one with the tiny wedding--had TWO showers! One was given by co-workers, the other by the nice ladies in my mother-in-law's church. It was what they sincerely wished to do, and the fact that they weren't a part of the wedding didn't seem to matter a bit. On the other hand, when a girlfriend wanted to hold a shower for me with plans to invite other mutual friends, I nixed it because it felt different. Play it by ear, but understand that there is a time to receive gifts graciously.

That appears to be the end of my advice to you. However, don't stop here. There are lots of web resources out there, better than when I was starting.

Done here? Head to my Specialty Wedding Page

Last updated 7/2004