Destination Weddings Made Easy (Or At Least Easier)

Sure, a destination wedding involves a getaway—usually of the beachy variety—but if you think that means you can get away from the headaches of conventional nuptials, think again. Planning can be a challenge no matter where you exchange vows (except maybe Vegas or your city hall), but pulling off a wedding at a far-flung locale is a Herculean effort requiring determination, superhuman organizational skills, and the endurance of an Olympic marathon runner. We’ve asked some leading wedding industry experts for their top “I do”s (and don’ts) for planning a destination wedding that doesn’t turn into the vacation from hell.
Over-the-water chapel at Sandals Grande St. Lucian Spa & Beach Resort in St. Lucia Photo by Sandals Resorts

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and planning a wedding in Rome might take closer to a year. Getting all the details to come together takes time, and then there's the matter of availability. “Some of the most popular venues will book 12 to 15 months out,” says Abby Frye, an event designer at A Charleston Bride in South Carolina. “In the off season, however, there’s more flexibility, with a shorter turnaround of 6 to 8 months possible.” The off season varies everywhere, but peak season tends to be during the holidays and the spring. 

Giving plenty of advance notice is equally important for your guests, who will need sufficient time to make plans. In addition to clearing their personal and professional calendars for the trip, they’ll need to search for and book the best airfare and accommodations. 

Photo: Over-the-water chapel at Sandals Grande St. Lucian Spa & Beach Resort in St. Lucia

A wedding at Moon Palace Jamaica Grande Resort Photo by Palace Resorts
When choosing the location for your wedding, aim for a happy medium between adventure and practicality. This is your big event, but you have to balance your desires with the needs of your guests. To maximize attendance, you’ll want to consider how feasible the trip will be for family and friends. Picking a locale that’s alluring while also accessible will yield an ideal destination. Keep in mind, however, that some guests might not be able to make the trip due to financial or mobility reasons—that's one of the risks you take when you opt for a destination wedding. 

When you begin to narrow down options, there is only so much reliable information you can glean from a website. Instead, ask for references from the venue or resort, and, if possible, speak directly with couples who were married there about their experience. Getting firsthand reports on how happy couples were with the place—and what they would do differently—can prove invaluable.

Photo: a wedding at Moon Palace Jamaica Grande Resort
 
A destination wedding at Palace Resorts Photo by Palace Resorts

Once you’ve selected the site for your wedding, make a special trip to stay at the venue. “The ideal time to do a site visit is the same weekend as your wedding, one year in advance,” says destination wedding and style expert Tara Guérard. “If you have an outdoor location, you can see where the sun sets so a glare isn’t in your guests’ eyes, and you can check what local flowers are in bloom.” Spending 2 or 3 days at the location also gives couples the chance to have food tastings, design meetings, and hair and makeup trials. “The site visit provides the opportunity to make sure [the resort's] tastes are in line with your own,” Guérard tells us.

 

Happy to lock in a location, couples often overlook the details of the contracts they sign for the big day. “When booking vendors, be sure you’ve allotted enough time for them to set up and break down their equipment,” advises Guérard. “Also, be sure the contract says what is included for the price.” For example, a contract may say that food and beverages are included, but fail to mention how many servers there will be. “If you don’t have enough bartenders,” Guérard points out, “your guests will wait all night long for a drink—and these important details should be spelled out in your contract.”

Instead of dwelling at length on the story of how you and your fiancé met—a tale most of your friends and family have already heard—create a website that shares all the travel information your guests need to know, from accommodation details to ground transportation to what to do when they have free time. Links to local attractions and must-do activities will not only help keep guests out of your hair, but the information will give visitors an idea of how long they should plan to stay in town. Remember that for some guests your wedding may be their big vacation for the year. Putting all your research at their fingertips will help them make the most of their time away from home.

Photo: a wedding at The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida

Wedding flowers Photo by Ashley Deason / Flickr

Even if your budget doesn’t include a professional planner in the months leading up to the ceremony, splurge on a wedding day helper. “No bride can be a hostess, plan a wedding, and enjoy the day,” Guérard says—and no groom can, either. For international weddings, she recommends finding someone locally who speaks English and has experience with American weddings—that’s what she does in these cases, and she’s a seasoned event planner. “I need someone who can get things done, give straight answers, and solve problems.” To find that onsite helper, she recommends asking the catering director and salespeople at your hotel for help. “They love to recommend their favorite local vendors,” she says. Just be sure to get estimates from more than one company to ensure you're getting the best deal.

A destination wedding at Palace Resorts Photo by Palace Resorts

Many resorts now offer all-inclusive wedding packages, which can make life easier for couples who don’t mind ceding some control to experts. The resorts offer customizable events and a coordinator who takes care of the logistics. The ceremonies are beautiful, and can offer some relief for those who don’t want to dwell on every tiny detail. 

Some resorts also offer financial incentives for couples who host big weddings. At Palace Resorts in Cancún, for instance, couples receive credits that can be applied to private events during their stay. The resort also offers a free room for every 10 rooms booked—which just might persuade you to invite those distant cousins you haven't seen since childhood. Similarly, Sandals Resorts, which has locations throughout the Caribbean, offers free wedding packages, including free rooms for guests, with your all-inclusive stay.

 
Provide Hotel Options to Guests (And Do It Soon!) Photo by Alex Indigo / Flickr

Getting married in a foreign country takes a lot more than showing up on your wedding day. In fact, Guérard warns that it can be “an administrative nightmare.” She advises clients to file legal paperwork in the U.S and make the wedding abroad a symbolic ceremony. If you don’t want to go that route, keep in mind that many countries, such as Mexico, Italy, and some Caribbean islands, have considerable red tape for legal unions. Some require couples to arrive several days before the ceremony, take blood tests, and complete huge amounts of paperwork in the presence of witnesses. With some other countries, all paperwork must be filed in the U.S., even after local requirements are met.

Country-specific requirements should be researched with the local government where the wedding will take place and confirmed with the officiant and resort.

 
Two women getting married in Florida Photo by Instagram / @heatherricephotography

Though same-sex marriages are recognized in the U.S. and in many other countries, legal ceremonies are not yet performed everywhere. Of course, getting married in your home state first or opting for a domestic destination wedding in another state like Hawaii or a U.S. territory like Puerto Rico are all good options. Beyond U.S. borders, you can legally tie the knot in a number of European countries as well as in Canada, South Africa, and elsewhere. If you opt for a symbolic ceremony in a country that hasn't legalized same-sex marriage, you might want to take into account local attitudes toward LGBT folks before you book. Though you'll likely be welcomed at the resort where you're staying, you and your guests might have to exercise caution when leaving the grounds.  

For more information on same-sex destination weddings, check out GayDestinationWeddings.com

Destination weddings within the U.S. can still be spectacular. Some top U.S. wedding spots include Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts; Charleston, South Carolina; and, of course, numerous places in Florida, California, and Hawaii.  Beyond simplifying the legal formalities, a wedding in the U.S. allows for recourse for citizens if things go wrong. Travel blogger Angie Orth had a less-than-stellar wedding in the Bahamas, where half the resort was under construction—complete with jackhammers—during her stay. A year later, Orth and her husband tried again for the perfect destination ceremony, and found it in a private vow renewal at the Grand Hyatt Kauai. “Hawaii gave us all the fun of a destination wedding, with all the consumer protections of the U.S.,” she says. 

Flexibility, creativity, and an open mind can come in handy when you're planning a wedding. Come to think of it, they're helpful in a marriage, too. 

And with that, we now pronounce you ready to wed!

Photo: The Grand Canyon, Arizona
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