10 Tips for Planning a Perfect Destination Wedding

What you need to know about planning a destination wedding. Hint: There's more planning necessary than you think.

Before you can say your vows on a Greek island, a Caribbean beach or at an elegant mountain resort, you have to plan the event. 

Lest you get overwhelmed, remember this: Planning a destination wedding doesn’t have to be more difficult or markedly more expensive than a domestic wedding. For those who are curious but unsure where to start, here are 10 tips and tricks to plan a beautiful destination wedding without overloading yourself with stress.

1.) Do a destination wedding if it fits your vision.

Though destinations weddings can come with added stress, getting your family and friends together on a physical adventure to enjoy the emotional adventure of a wedding can reap benefits.

“Any time you leave your comfort zone, your senses are heightened,” said Andrea Eppolito, the owner of Eppolito Weddings & Events. “You bond with your guests through a series of unique, shared experiences. You are able to literally and truly step away from the monotony of your day-to-day life.”

2.) Consider the budget.

Like planning any vacation, budget is going to dictate location, time of year and how long the festivities can last.

“Travel and hotel costs for you and your guests can fluctuate depending on if you’re traveling during peak-season versus low-season or during a holiday weekend,” said David Tutera, a celebrity wedding planner. “Be sure to check your calendar and events happening in and around your destination location in advance.”

Tutera said that major events in the location could drive up the cost of accommodations and more. An average budget for a luxury destination wedding ranges from $750 to $1,500 per person for only the ceremony and reception, and a luxury wedding planner's fees will account for roughly 20 percent of the budget.

One way to keep prices lower, once the location is set, is to find an all-inclusive resort with wedding packages that fit the couples' budget.

"A good rule of thumb is that packages are going to be more straight-forward," said Eppolito. "They are a great option for couples that need a one-stop-shopping experience; whether that is because of finances, time, experience, etc."

A package in Hawaii or the Caribbean—two of the most popular destination wedding locations outside the U.S.—at an all-inclusive resort will start, on average, at $3,500 and range up to $12,000 or more for the ceremony and reception. 

Caribbean beach destination wedding

3.) Decide on a location.

“I’ve planned events all over the world—Switzerland, Africa, Italy, Mexico," said Tutera. "Every place is so different, so beautiful and more unique than the next.” 

Some of the most popular destinations are Mexico, the Caribbean and Hawaii.

"The world is shrinking, and individuals are becoming more educated, more cultured, and they have seen and experienced things that previous generations haven’t," said Eppolito. "Their families and friends are often spread throughout the world, making travel a necessity for at least a portion of the guest list."

The seasons in the decided destination will impact your preferred wedding date, but taking risks with weather seasons can also mean potential savings as hotels and resorts discount rooms and wedding packages to attract travelers. Love the Caribbean and Bahamas? Watch out for the months from June to November during the hurricane season. Looking to Miami, Charleston or the Southern U.S.? Watch out for mid-summer months when humidity will soak your guests if it is an outdoor wedding. 

4.) Hire a planner.

Though planning a DIY destination wedding is possible, the "destination" part of the equation often makes it necessary to hire another pair of hands to make the day run smoothly.

“There are so many things that go into planning and you really have to be prepared weeks in advance of going to your destination,” said Nellie Sparkman, the lead planner of Events by Nellie. “There are so many logistical things behind the scenes with any kind of wedding. You need a planner to make it happen: They know who is good vendor and who isn’t and will help you get connected with the people who will help make your day everything you want it to be.”

5.) Create the guest list early.

Deciding on the number of guests will directly affect how much the couple can do for—and with—the guests. And it directly impacts the budget.

“The smaller the guest list, the less catering and alcohol you have to bring," said Tutera. "Less tables means less centerpieces and floral. Cutting back on costs like these only makes more room in your budget to splurge on other elements of the big day.”

Average-size weddings (typically 80 to 120 guests) and even larger weddings can be arranged (assuming you have a planner to help), but Eppolito said keeping the wedding small will cut down on costs and allow the couple more time with each guest. 

“If you buy a wedding package for 10 people at a luxury resort that has truly taken the time to design an extraordinary experience for your guests, then that comes across as a luxury wedding,” said Eppolito. “Try to replicate that for 100 or 150 guests, and suddenly the experience is diluted to something that feels much more static and basic.” 

Having a small destination wedding doesn’t mean that you can’t eventually include all the well wishers. Sparkman said that at-home receptions for those who couldn’t voyage to the destination are a rising trend in the weddings she’s planned.

However many friends and family you decide to invite, invite the guests earlier rather than later.

“[Send invites] at least nine months to a year in advance,” said Sparkman. “Your attendees are going to need to budget because it can get costly. It’s not just one night that you want them there. It’s easier to book a domestic flight and get a few days off work over a weekend. It’s harder to get a few days off and travel abroad.”

6.) Know how to pick your vendors.

“Decide whether you want to use suggested, local vendors at your destination or if you want to have your own vendors from home travel to your destination,” said Tutera. But if you go the latter route, be prepared for a massive increase in cost, as your local vendors will have to be paid for their travel fees.

Tutera said that going with local vendors may save time and give travelers an insider’s knowledge as most local vendors know the venue and the area. If planning a DIY wedding, request a list of the local vendors from your venue and research them thoroughly before signing a contract.

Planners can also help you navigate the rules of bringing in outside vendors. Some countries (and even the venues) will have strict rules on who can work at the events.

7.) Don't offer to pay for everyone.

When you ask friends and family to take off time from work and from their own families to be in (not just attend) your wedding, you should not feel guilty if you ask them to pay for their own travel costs. 

Eppolito said the bride and groom should not stress over footing the bill if they can't afford it. She said that, in her experience, only couples with "extensive resources" offer to cover everyone's expenses.

“There is no right or wrong way,” affirmed Tutera. “I’ve had couples who were able to foot the bill for everyone, but if you can’t afford to do this, a nice gesture would be to cover a small portion or treat them to a spa day or excursion as part of their thank-you gift."

8.) Get (Legally) Married

The legality of the marriage—and making sure that it’s recognized in the U.S.—is also a detail the couple should plan.

If the ceremony is outside the U.S., couples should plan to visit the U.S. embassy at their destination to verify that the destination wedding is legally recognized.

Sometimes it's easier to avoid all of that, Tutera said.

“Often what my couples do is make it official [in the U.S.] from a legal standpoint with a civil ceremony and then ceremoniously celebrate their union at their destination wedding.”

destination wedding location

9.) Getting to the Destination

In the days, weeks and months before leaving for a destination, Sparkman says, budget-conscious couples can save money by thoughtful planning.

“I’ve seen some brides bring their dress on a plane as a carry on,” said Sparkman. “Check with the airline and have someone steam the dress when you get there. Think ahead—if you’re buying a lot of things from Etsy or vendors, see if you can get it sent directly to the hotel and assemble the items before the wedding.”

Before and during travel, couples should consider the comfort of the guests as well.

“Couples should always plan with the guest experience in mind,” said Eppolito. “Seek out locations that create excitement for their guests while also ensuring their physical and emotional comfort level.”

Plan to personally greet or have someone else greet the guests with itineraries, instructions and other welcoming items. This simple act can stave off confusion for larger parties and will make the guests feel appreciated for their efforts to attend the event.

10.) Celebrate

“Aside from a little getaway and some gorgeous scenery as the backdrop of the wedding, a destination wedding is always a great way for both families to come together and really get to know each other,” said Tutera. “Spending so much time with one another makes for great memories and new relationships.”