In my years as a wedding photographer, I have been lucky enough to photograph weddings all over the world. I have been a destination wedding photographer for weddings in Italy, France, Spain, Hawaii, Mexico, and even Macedonia! I have learned a lot about what to do… and what NOT to do… when it comes to having a destination wedding. With that in mind, I wanted to share what I have learned while photographing destination weddings. Keep reading for my top 5 tips about how to plan a destination wedding as well as some of my favorite destination wedding spots… both here in the US and abroad.
Top 5 Tips for a Destination Wedding
1) Make Sure It’s Legal:
Each destination has its own set of requirements and laws to legalize a marriage.
- Many countries have a residency requirement. For some, like the Turks and Caicos, it’s only 24 hours. In England, it’s 7 days. In France, it’s 40 days!
- Some destinations also require certain blood tests and vaccines in order to get married.
- Don’t forget your passports! Make sure your passport is up to date, and if it isn’t, allow plenty of time to renew or get a new one… at least 8 weeks to avoid extra fees.
- Confused and overwhelmed but still want a destination wedding? Consider doing a formal ceremony in the US with an ordained minister or at the courthouse… then run away and have your wedding reception with guests abroad!
2) Hire Destination Experienced Vendors:
If you are looking to have your wedding in a foreign-speaking destination, choose your vendors carefully. It’s a good idea to bring some of your own. Why bring your own vendors? They speak your language, understand your vision and expectations, and they already know you. Also, consider hiring a local wedding planner to coordinate everyone and translate for you.
- If it is possible for you to travel to your destination before your wedding, create a schedule to meet with a few potential local event planners and venues. If face-to-face isn’t possible, schedule a video chat and tour.
- A wedding planner (especially a local one who specializes in English-speaking clients) can help you choose the right venue, translate and explain situations, and coordinate vendors. If a planner is out of your budget, you can get advice through your venue coordinator. But beware… a venue coordinator is not the same as a wedding planner… Check out THIS link to find out the difference between a wedding planner and venue coordinator (and how hiring a planner can save you time, stress, and even money!)
- Vendors such as your wedding photographer, videographer, and hair & make-up artists are wise to bring from home. WHY? You can meet with them before the wedding so that they can get to know you (and, they speak your language). They also understand your customs whereas vendors from a different country may have different expectations and views. For example, many foreign countries do not put an emphasis on family photos like people in the United States. Lastly, different countries have different expectations and traditions that you may not agree on. You don’t want to miss out on something that is considered “normal” in the States but in Italy doesn’t exist. Many vendors offer travel packages for destination weddings. (I have special packages… email me to receive them
- A key exception to this rule is Michigan’s Mackinac Island! Because cars are not allowed, it’s important to hire local vendors who can navigate transportation and other unique logistics not found elsewhere in the world!
3) Understand Where to Spend…And Where to Save:
SURPRISE! A destination wedding might be less expensive than your local celebration given that fewer guests may be invited. However, in order to make sure that costs don’t spiral out of control, consider the following when making your budget:
- What travel expenses do vendors from home require? For example, I cover my own airfare, but my couples cover my accommodations. In exchange, I include extra day coverage like a destination portrait sessions/rehearsal dinner/day after brunch/etc.
- While your guests and bridal party most often pay for their own accommodations, find out if your hotel offers discounts for groups. (Most do.)
- Are there any activities, events, or amenities that you want to provide for your guests in addition to the reception? Since your guests are traveling, it’s nice to provide them with some “extras” to make the trip special.
- How much decor do you really need? With all the natural beauty of a destination, flowers and decor can be simpler (and less expensive) to fit with the setting and the vibe. Plus traveling with decor can be a headache. This can be a big money saver!
4) Plan and Communicate with Your Guests:
Your destination wedding is likely a beautiful vacation spot, and you want your guests, who have taken the time and money to travel with you, to feel like they are on vacation as well. Consider these ways to make your guests feel welcome:
- Send out the Save-the-Dates as early as possible to let your guests know when and where you will be tying the knot. Ideally, include a link to your wedding website.
- Use your Wedding Website. Communicate key pieces of information such as hotel booking information (remember to check for a group discount), what to pack, and what to expect – weather, itinerary, transportation, etc. You can even link to your registries.
- Place Welcome Bags or baskets in their rooms or have them available at check-in. Include such things as water bottles, flip-flops (if in a beach location), a list of local activities and attractions (with a map) and the wedding itinerary. If your budget allows, include gift certificates for such things like spa treatments, local attractions, and favorite restaurants.
- Plan a welcome cocktail reception or meal and include brunch the day after the wedding. One or all of these things not only make your guests feel welcome and appreciated, but they all contribute to the ongoing celebration and fun!
- Consider your guests’ needs. Be sure to include and communicate how wedding guests are transported from point A to point B. Do they need any special accommodations? If you’re planning group activities, make sure you plan a wide range with everyone in mind. For example, if you are planning something active like a hike or kayaking, plan a sightseeing tour in addition for those not as adventurous.
5) Have a Destination Wedding… Right Here at Home:
If factors such as finances or family members who can’t travel rule out a destination wedding abroad, consider having one in the US.
- Florida Beaches give you a destination feel… minus the stress of international travel and logistics. Its a great option for east coast, midwest, and southern states. Plus airports are easy to fly into (especially Tampa). See a favorite Florida Beach Wedding of mine HERE.
- Mackinac Island in Michigan feels like a world away yet it’s a drivable distance for anyone in the Midwest and a short flight from the rest of the country. Its historic charm, lack of cars, and elegant yet laid-back island vibes make it a top-notch destination wedding location.
- For a West Coast Wedding, Santa Barbara has the beautiful beaches and laid-back vibe of a resort town, all a short drive from California’s major cities. Check out my weddings featured in Santa Barbara Wedding Style to get a sense of the many beautiful locations Santa Barbara has to offer. This site is also a great resource for planning a wedding in Santa Barbara County.
Bonus: Wedding Locations I Love Outside of the U.S.
- The Pynes: Owned by a former couple of mine – an American and an Englishman – the pictures of this incredible historic country manor house speak for themselves. If you are a Jane Austen or Downton Abbey fan, this is truly your dream wedding destination.
- Bali: Bali is one of my favorite places in the world. There are so many gorgeous locations throughout the entire country that you can’t go wrong! Last year I had the chance to tour the Fairmont Sanur Beach in Bali and meet their wedding team… Beautiful and top-notch!
- Italy: If you know me, you know my obsession with Italy. I’ve photographed several weddings at many estates. Most of my weddings took place at privately-owned locations. I suggest researching if you’d rather have a castle or estate wedding or a ceremony held somewhere official in their version of a town hall… like in Florence at the Palazzo Vecchio.
If it is a destination wedding you are dreaming of, be sure to consult THIS CHECKLIST so that all of your bases are covered and you can relax and enjoy your celebration. For more inspiration, check out some more of my favorite destination wedding spots and destination wedding photographs below!