I have been planning my destination wedding for over a year. I'm part of several destination weddings forums and I've heard my share of horror stories. So take what I say with a grain of salt, but here is some advice that might help newbie destination couples keep their sanity while planning their wedding.
At times it may seem that I'm putting down the destination wedding, but I really do think it's grand. I think that, for some people, a destination wedding is ideal — I just want to help those that are considering it to make informed choices.
1. Be realistic with the guest list
If you always wanted a 120-person wedding (with your family, extended relatives, friends from high school and college, co-workers, etc.), then a destination wedding may not be for you. The majority of your dream guests won't be able to come.
Don't take declines personally, but know you probably will. And try not to get too bent-out-of-shape. There are all kinds of reasons traveling even 50 miles from home will exclude guests. Some people can't get the time off work, don't have a passport, have kids, have medical issues, can't leave the country or the state for legal reasons — and of course, the added costs. You never know people's situations, and even though they may look like they're rolling in dough, the reality could be very different.
I would suggest sitting down with your partner and making a master guest list and then rank everyone into columns:
A: Essential to be there
B: Would really love them to be there
C: I should invite them
Then cut your C guests, and cut the bottom ½ of your B guests. Your A column and your reduced B column are the people most likely to come to your wedding, and this is probably a realistic guest list. Now cut that by half, and those are the people that are likely to come. If you are not okay with that, a destination wedding may not be your cup of tea.
Prepare yourself for essential family members not being able to make it. My 101-year-old great-grandfather is too weak to fly and isn't coming. Consider consulting with your families before making plans and looking into alternatives like live-streaming your ceremony.
2. Consider eloping
Everyone who is planning a destination wedding has probably thought about eloping. This was our original plan actually, but I was betrayed by my need for attention and sentimental heart. Eloping sometimes is the fairest way to get married abroad, because you are not making everyone spend a ton to get there, and you're not leaving any one person out. Eloping can be very romantic and can be as simple or elaborate as you would like. And if you'd like to still have a party, you can consider having a reception when you get home.
Eloping can solve a lot of destination wedding headaches, but be prepared for family to be offended. They may have dreamt of your wedding since you were a child and they may feel hurt by being left out.
3. It's not an RSVP until they buy their tickets
Every couple has to go through the RSVP shuffle with their guests, and destination weddings are even worse.
Let your guests know about your plans ASAP. The longer they have to prepare, the more time they have to start saving up.
Give yourself a deadline for RSVPs at a reasonable distance from the date. Then tell your guest the deadline is two weeks earlier than it actually is.
When people RSVP, ask for their flight info. If they haven't bought a ticket, it's not an RSVP. If you are two weeks from the ceremony and a guest hasn't bought their ticket (unless they are a devil-may-care kind of flyer that likes to wait on standby), it's unlikely that they will come.
4. Make it a group vacation
For a lot of your guests, your wedding will be their vacation for the year — so try to make it fun. Provide your guests with info on non-wedding attractions in the area, and have their interests in mind. Our friends are a mix of sporty outdoors people, cultural snobs, and families with small children. We provided links on our wedding website to everything from nature trails, to water parks, to the local symphony.
Find out when your guests are flying in and try to plan a few activities on those dates. These don't have to break the bank. Some of the activities planned for our wedding week are a beach picnic, a free winery tour, a trip to the local open-air market, and a post-wedding brunch.
Don't feel that you need to do something every day. Your guests would like some down-time to do their thing.
It has helped me immensely to see our destination wedding as a group vacation with my 30 closest loved ones… and it just so happens we're going to get married during it.
5. Go gift-less
Gifts are a touchy subject for destination weddings, as your guests are probably spending considerably more to attend than if you had your reception locally. Talk with your partner and have a clear stance on gifts from the beginning.
6. Destination weddings are not necessarily cheaper
Some people get it in their heads that a destination wedding will be considerably less expensive because it's smaller, or in a location with a weaker currency than the dollar. Yes, it's usually smaller and in some locations your dollar does go further, but the wedding industry is the wedding industry no matter where you go. You think Santorini is beautiful and want to get married there? Yeah, so do literally thousands of other people every year.
There certainly are ways to save money on a destination wedding. Eloping, or keeping to fewer than 10 guests can cut considerable costs. Taking a pre-packaged cruise or resort wedding can save money, too. The average cost of a destination wedding is still between $17,000-$20,000 which is cheaper than the standard wedding in the States, but is still pretty pricey. Plus, your guests take on extra financial burden, and you have a limited ability to use cost-saving methods like potlucking and DIY décor. Which means you may have to rent or buy items to get the décor you want.
Speaking of décor items…
7. Keep your suitcase in mind
When buying or making anything for your wedding, ask yourself: “How am I going to get it there?” Our groomsman wanted to make origami octopus place cards for the tables before we leave. It's a great idea and I love it, but they would be killed in a suitcase, and take up a lot of room in a shipping box.
If you have friends or family living in your chosen destination, their house will soon become your wedding shipping address. For the rest of us, anything for the wedding needs to be packed in a bag or bought on-site.
One way we are trying to work around this limitation is what we are calling the Mule Train. Almost every guest has been assigned some item to pack in their bags and bring with them. I have practice-packed (yes, I practice packing) our bags. Two checked bags each, no more than no more than 50 kilos (110 pounds), and two on-board bags (my dress counts as one). Everything that didn't fit got assigned to guests' bags.
8. Research, research, research
I cannot stress enough the need to research as much as possible before-hand, even if you are going to your home country, or have been there a thousand times. One of the destination brides in my circle was having her wedding in Uganda, which was the country of her birth — however, she left as a kid and forgot that Uganda has two rainy seasons. She planned her “safari outdoor wedding” smack dab in the middle of the second rainy season.
The more research you do, the less likely you are to get ripped off, and the more likely you are to find the hidden gems a place may offer. If you can visit your destination location beforehand, even better! But most of us won't have that option. A good wedding planner may be worth the expense if you need someone on the ground to do things for you. If you find a really good vendor, ask them for recommendations. Trip Advisor is also a great resource, and wedding vendor rating sites can be very helpful, too.
9. Try to remember to be a conscious traveler
Sometimes I feel like Bride Me is not the same as Regular Me. Bride Me gets distracted by shiny things, and is manically focused on one week of her life. Sometimes Regular Me needs to step in with some sense. One of the things I've struggled with during this process is planning the wedding of my dreams without losing sight of my ideals and becoming the worst kind of tourist.
We talk a lot on Offbeat Bride about weddings and the culture of narcissism. There is a whole new layer added to that when you go smashing into a country with your three-ring circus and complete disregard for the people who live there.
Try to look beyond the all-inclusive packages and see what else is out there. Your wedding dollars would better serve the community you are getting married in by being spent with the mom and pop B&B, the woman-run bakery, and the small wholesale flower distributor, than with the huge multinational hotel.
This has been something I've tried to be aware of through the planning process with mixed success. It is a lot more work (especially with a language barrier) and there's less guarantee of deliverability. Sometimes I think, “Why didn't we just go to a big resort and get their all-inclusive wedding package?” Then I think of the owner of the hotel where our reception will be. He personally went down to the courthouse and helped us sort out a paperwork problem we had — I've never had anyone go so far out of their way to help me before.
I also get that lots of folks couldn't afford their wedding if it wasn't for those packaged deals, and I respect that. But no matter where you go, make an effort to help support the local economy.
10. Be flexible
Every wedding has unforeseen hurdles and so will your destination wedding. Things may not work out as you planned, but try to be flexible, and roll with the punches. Ceremony venue canceled the last-minute? Screw 'em, get married at the courthouse or the beach. You thought chairs were included but found out they are sold separately? Forget it, have your guests surround the alter in a protective circle for the ceremony.
You are going on an adventure with the love of your life and the best people in the world. Challenges may come but you guys can overcome anything.