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The Ultimate Guide to Planning a Destination Wedding

by Julie Schwietert Collazo Apr 21, 2008
Planning a destination wedding can seem like a daunting task. Here’s what you need to know.

Destination weddings have become increasingly popular in recent years, and a growing number of couples say they’d like to celebrate their special day in an exotic location.

Planning a destination wedding, however, can seem overwhelming, especially when so many details are being coordinated from afar.

This guide-from someone who planned her own destination wedding-can help simplify planning so that you can have an extraordinary day that’s as memorable for your guests as it is for you and your partner.

10. Consider Your Destination

This sounds obvious enough, but choosing the best destination ultimately depends upon a variety of factors: Where do you and your partner want to get married?

Weddings, regardless of whether they’re in your home town or far away, can become very expensive very fast.

Who among your friends and family do you want to attend? How long of a trip can your guests take-both in terms of distance and duration?

What kinds of accommodations (in terms of transportation, lodging, and accessibility) will be necessary in order for your guests to come, and what accommodations are available in the places you’re considering?

When my husband and I planned our wedding on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, we knew we wanted to get married in a place that was meaningful to us, but which was also not so far-flung that guests would feel the journey was cost-prohibitive.

Also, we had a number of older guests who we wanted to share in the experience, and some had physical conditions that needed to be taken into consideration.

Puerto Rico was the perfect location-and the bonus was that since it’s a commonwealth of the United States, no one needed to get a passport!

9. Put your dream, and a budget, on paper.

Weddings, regardless of whether they’re in your home town or far away, can become very expensive very fast. For destination weddings, costs you don’t expect can crop up without warning if you don’t perform due diligence during the planning phase.

What are the non-negotiables of your dream wedding and what extras are you willing to sacrifice?

Once you have those down on paper, start developing a budget, and be sure to factor in easy-to-overlook items such as local taxes in the place you’ve selected for your wedding.

If you’re planning, as my husband and I did, to get married on a beach, you’ll need to check with local officials to determine if there’s a permit required for public land use, and if so, how much it costs and how far in advance you must request it.

8. How local can you go?

My husband and I had our rings made by a local, independent jeweler who specialized in handmade jewelry. Lou etched lines from our favorite poem on the outside of our wedding bands.

We were-and still are-thrilled with our unique, and she was thrilled to have the business.

We didn’t want a cake, but our guests did, and they found a local baker who made a simple, one-tier homemade cake, which she decorated with native flowers.

Rings, reverends, and revelry makers-the more local you go, the more fun you’ll have and the more positive an impact you can make on the community.

7. Guide your guests.

The more exotic your destination, the more your guests are likely to be excited- and anxious, especially if they’re not as seasoned in travel as you.

Help build the thrill and contain the worries by providing your guests with guides every step of the way.

For our own wedding, my husband and I didn’t send out traditional invitations, but we started an e-mail list, and sent regular updates about wedding plans.

Other couples choose to build simple websites or blogs that guests can check frequently for new photos and information.

We also sent out packages with maps, biographies of our guests (so they’d know a bit about each other before the wedding), a short history of Vieques, and a card with all of our contact information, as well as information about the airport, weather, and suggested items to pack.

If you’re traveling to a place where your guests won’t know the language, you may want to include a small phrase book.

Finally, let guests know what’s expected of them. We told our guests that they could wear whatever made them comfortable to the wedding, and we were thrilled that some showed up in tank tops and shorts, while others wore dresses or shirts and ties.

Your guests will really appreciate your planning and thoughtfulness, and your preparation will make the on-the-ground experience of the wedding much smoother.

6. Make the wedding a vacation.

My husband and I invited friends and family to join us five days before the big day for fun and relaxation on the island. We rented three simple houses on the beach and let our guests know they’d be welcome to stay as little or as long as they could prior to the wedding day.

We stocked up on food, cigars, and beer, and planned at least one activity a day (besides the big evening family-style meal). Most of our guests did join us before the wedding, and some even decided to stay after the wedding for several more days.

5. Gift your guests.

Two years later, our friends and family still talk about this amazing experience.

What activity is the must-see/must-do experience in the locale you’ve chosen for your wedding?

For our guests, we made it clear that we didn’t want gifts, but that we wanted to give them a gift in gratitude for their friendship and their presence.

Vieques is famous for its bio-luminescent bay, so we hired an eco-tourism guide to take everyone on a night-time kayaking tour of the bay. Two years later, our friends and family still talk about this amazing experience.

4. Learn local laws.

One of the most complicated aspects of planning a destination wedding is learning what local laws govern your marriage and your ceremony. Check these out well in advance, as this may alter your destination of choice.

Puerto Rico has very stringent laws about pre-wedding details such as blood tests and certificates of matrimony, so we decided to do our formal paperwork in New York.

3. Plan transportation.

Help your guests get to and from the airport, lodging, and activities. This was the most complex detail of our own wedding, as Vieques is off the mainland of Puerto Rico and is accessible only by ferry or small plane, both of which operate on fixed schedules.

Once on the island, there are limited cars for rental, so this detail needed to be planned far in advance as well.

2. Minimize stress.

If you’ve dreamed of a flawless fairy-tale wedding, then a destination wedding probably isn’t for you. With even the best planning, there are likely to be variables you didn’t anticipate and that are beyond your control.

Realize that no destination wedding goes off exactly as planned. Keep your expectations realistic and go with the flow.

1. Create and share memories.

For many of your guests, your destination wedding will be the memory of a lifetime. Keep that good energy going after the wedding by sharing mementos of your time together.

Create a DVD of the experience and send it to your guests after the wedding. Share photos and written memories about good times you had together.

Our wedding was so memorable that people who didn’t know each other beforehand are still in touch with one another, and guests have requested that we plan annual wedding reunions!

BONUS TIP: Don’t forget your honeymoon! While many couples who have a destination wedding may choose not to take another trip after the wedding, the stress of planning a wedding–even a fun destination wedding–may leave you feeling like you need a honeymoon. If you’d rather have your guests help fund a honeymoon rather than give traditional wedding gifts, check out the Honeymoon Registry, which allows your guests to contribute to a fund for your honeymoon.

Community Connection!

There are several newly-weds in the Matador Travel community, including editor David Miller and BNT editor Ian MacKenzie.

Then there’s contributor Theodore Scott, who recently quit his job to travel around South America with his fiancee and tried, unsuccessfully, to marry her in every country they visited.

What are you tips and experiences with destination weddings? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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