I'm Dreaming of a Destination Wedding

An intimate group of family and friends gathered in Destin to watch Judge Don Ash marry Kelli Lee Rollins & Devin Dillard. Photography by Brett Birdsong of Birdsong Photography

An intimate group of family and friends gathered in Destin to watch Judge Don Ash marry Kelli Lee Rollins & Devin Dillard. Photography by Brett Birdsong of Birdsong Photography

by Christy Howard Womack

What is wonderful about a destination wedding is that the bride and groom get to spend more than just the time of the event with their friends and family. A destination wedding is an intimate way for a couple to share their wedding with the people who are most important to them. Generally, the people who will travel for a destination wedding are the ones you most want to be there – your family, your parent’s friends you knew growing up, and your closest circle of friends. But keep in mind how rich (or poor) your friends are. The average cost of a destination wedding trip for a guest is $750 to $1,100 per person according to the experts at DestinationWeddings.com. However, many couples have families and friends that are from here, there and everywhere. If guests are going to have to travel to the wedding wherever it’s held, a destination wedding may be the perfect solution.

Of course, the beauty of most destination weddings is that they are set in romantic locations, perfect for newly married couples to stay post ceremony for their honeymoon. Couples who combine the wedding and the honeymoon can save a significant sum. And many couples choose to turn the wedding into a weeklong celebration/vacation for their friends and family as well.

The location of your wedding determines your theme. You want your guests to walk away from your wedding saying, “That was so them!” The style of your wedding should reflect your style as a couple, whether that’s a rustic mountain location or a tropical beach paradise. “I’ve never planned anything like this before,” says Meaghan Callahan who married this year at Brasstown Valley Resort. “I always knew how I wanted the wedding to feel. As a couple we sat down and decided what was important to us. Which was having a really awesome band, a delicious cake, and a warm and cozy setting.”

If you know the overall location, but not the specific spot, work with a travel agent, or check out destination wedding websites like theweddingexperience.com or destinationweddings.com. Do choose a location that’s easy to get to and be mindful of Mother Nature and her seasons. Don’t get married in Mexico or the Caribbean during hurricane season. Hawaii has a rainy season. Italy can be uncomfortably hot in July and August.

Unfortunately, the best weather in vacation destinations also correlates with tourist season when there are more crowds, higher rates and less availability. If you do choose a date during the busy season, be sure to start planning early – reserving hotel blocks at least 12 months in advance so guests can book their accommodations to get the best prices. If you choose a date during the shoulder season (just before or after the busy season), you will be able to save you and your guests money, however the weather may be more unpredictable. You might also steer clear of holidays when both hotel and airfare tend to be higher. It is important to start your planning well in advance both to get the best “ocean view” rooms as well as to give guests and yourself advance notice for travel arrangements, passport renewals, etc.

Be sure to tell your bridal party about your plans before you ask them to be your attendant so that they can decline gracefully if their finances don’t allow for the trip. Try to determine a tentative head count to make choosing your venue more realistic given the size of your guest list by informally asking guests with a tentative plan of say the “Caribbean in January 2017.”

Jen and Dan Cahill were married on beautiful Marcos Island. Photography by Gulfside Media

Jen and Dan Cahill were married on beautiful Marcos Island. Photography by Gulfside Media

Once you’ve settled on the location, the best way to choose your venue is to take a planning trip. On your first trip, you’ll want to research and select your locations – ceremony and reception spaces, hotels for guests, and a rehearsal dinner location. If time allows, you can take a second trip to select your caterer, florist and other vendors. When you are visiting, do not ignore the backup location. It’s easy to be excited about the beautiful sunset beach ceremony, but also check out the rain option. Know what your options are before hand. The good news is that this whole long-distance process will make you more decisive as you don’t have the luxury of looking at every available option. Find one you love and book it.

A wedding planner for a destination wedding is a no-brainer. You will not be able to be nearly as hands-on, so it’s important you choose someone you can trust. Many resorts like Sandals include a coordinator in their wedding packages. Otherwise, set aside ten percent of your total budget for a wedding planner. A local planner is best, but if you prefer to use a planner from home, make sure they have experience planning weddings at that specific location so that they already have relationships with local vendors. A wedding planner will negotiate your rates with the venues, research and secure the local vendors, read all the contracts, know the legalities for marriages and events in that location, deal with logistics, and handle last minute details. They have the resources and experience to get the plans made faster, easier and with more reliability. Most wedding planners will have a website with a gallery of photos so that you can determine if a planner’s previous work is to your standards. Then share your Pinterest board to easily share your vision for your wedding with your planner. Having a visual to share is particularly helpful when planning from far away.

“When planning my destination wedding I visited our reception site quite a few times so I could get ideas from our planner. Etsy was my best friend when it came to all things personal. I also used Pinterest a ton! It was a great place to see pictures that I could save without a book to tote around. There were a ton of details that can get overwhelming at times, but I made lists and checked them off once they were completed,” explains Meaghan Callahan.

Family and friends can all get into the spirit spending a week together celebrating the newly married couple. Photography by Brett Birdsong of Birdsong Photography

Family and friends can all get into the spirit spending a week together celebrating the newly married couple. Photography by Brett Birdsong of Birdsong Photography

Once you have selected a hotel or resort, be sure to ask about what other events will be taking place that weekend. Ask if you are the only wedding taking place that weekend and what other large groups might be attending. Some package or all inclusive resorts are equipped to have multiple weddings, but they also usually have their own vendors and suppliers. The plans are easy and what some couples prefer. These events do tend to be a bit “cookie cutter,” and you may have fewer choices about the details, however it is also likely to be less expensive. Keep in mind that the setting will still be new to your guests.

If you prefer a more individualized wedding with more choices, let your planner assist you in selecting the most reputable vendors. Trustworthy vendors will supply a list of satisfied clients, and many times will have worked with your planner in advance. You’ll want to select a photographer, florist, musicians and a ceremony official. Wedding cakes are usually available through most hotel chefs, but some venues will let you use an outside caterer. In most locations, you can definitely spend less on flowers than a traditional ceremony, after all, it was the beauty of the setting that attracted you in the first place.

“I wanted something simple since the venue was already so beautiful,” says Kelli Lee Dillard who married last year in Destin, Florida. “The pier on the bay was such a breathtaking backdrop, I didn’t want to take away from that. We added a few simple touches with babies breath in mason jars along the aisle, a few lanterns, candles and pictures of us.”

Plan events for the whole weekend, not just the wedding. It’s a good idea to plan a welcome party and/or a rehearsal dinner and party, and perhaps even a day-after brunch. It can also be fun to plan a wine tasting, a sightseeing trip or a nature hike to allow your guests time to mingle. Remember, you are quite busy, but guests have more time available. Be sure to provide detailed instructions on transportation to the wedding site or arrange for group transportation if they are moving from one location to another for wedding events. Consider the needs of your guests in advance and arrange with the hotel for babysitting services or a crib in the room. It’s always nice to have welcome bags in your guest’s room filled with essentials relevant to the trip like suntan lotion, a map and list of local attractions, an itinerary for wedding activities, even a spa gift certificate if your budget allows. Most of all, leave a personal handwritten note thanking your guests for attending your wedding.

Meaghan Daniel and Joey Callahan chose a rustic mountain sunset wedding. Photography by Priya Photography • Lindsey McIntyre

Meaghan Daniel and Joey Callahan chose a rustic mountain sunset wedding. Photography by Priya Photography • Lindsey McIntyre

Perhaps the best thing you can do for your guests is to plan well in advance. Save the date cards with airport, hotel and other information should be available. It’s also a good idea to set up a wedding website to keep guests apprised of the details. Let them know if you’ve set aside blocks of hotel rooms and how to book them, what the itinerary of the weekend is, the local climate, etc. It’s a good idea to send actual invitations three months out instead of the customary two months. Ask for an RSVP one month ahead.

You should also consider the climate when choosing your dress and your attendants’ attire. Consider the temperature, the humidity, and the terrain. You might want to reconsider a long train if you’re being married outdoors. In tropical climates, think light fabrics and colors that won’t show sweat. Consider having an extra shirt on hand for your groom.

Whatever you do, DO NOT SHIP THE DRESS. Shipping is not the best idea for the things that really matter for your wedding day. Most airlines are equipped to hang wedding dresses on a plane, but be sure to check in advance. If your airline is not prepared, have your dress packed professionally. If at all possible, do not check your wedding dress, but carry it onto the plane yourself. You will have extra baggage fees. Distribute your extra bags to friends and family to reduce the fees.

Of course, your wedding planner can help you with the legal side of tying the knot. If you are being married in a foreign location, check their residency requirements, blood tests and proof of immunization requirements. Turks and Caicos may be just 24 hours, but some locations are a week or longer. Also do your homework if you are married overseas to make sure that your marriage is recorded within the United States. Some couples choose to have a simple civil service at home and their more meaningful service at their destination to ensure that the marriage is recorded in the U.S.

Inevitably there will be a group of people at home who weren’t able to attend the wedding. If you can, plan a reception for when you arrive home. Be sure to have your wedding photos or videos on hand, or create a digital slide show of your wedding pictures so guests can experience the event with you and you’ll get to enjoy it all over again.