How to Plan a Destination Wedding

How to Plan a Destination Wedding
photo by Chris & Ruth as seen on GWS in this Intimate Santorini Wedding

Considering a destination wedding or elopement? Essentially it’s a two-for-one as you get a wedding and a dreamy honeymoon…pretty smart if you ask us! While some couples choose to elope across the world for the sake of intimacy, others choose to invite all their friends and family to make it a huge celebratory vacation. Whatever the case, and whatever your reason for wanting to go abroad—we say do it! At GWS, we believe that travel is so important for growth and understanding, so what better place to start off your marriage than while on an adventure?

Now, since a lot of time + funds go in to planning vows abroad, we thought it would be super helpful to craft this list of important things to consider before you commit to a destination wedding (or elopement). Some places require you to have a marriage license from your home country, while other places allow for a ceremony on the spot…but do you know which countries those might be? Yep, definitely something to figure out before you fly out! In addition to that, what happens if you pack your wedding dress and your luggage gets lost? How do you coordinate all the wedding details in a place where you don’t speak the language? What about making sure you can book enough rooms for all your guests? Oh, and do you know when tourist season starts?

All those things definitely factor into the big day. So, before you board that plane, let’s give you the low-down on weddings in a different locale.

1. Check on Marriage Laws + Licenses

Whimsical Thailand Wedding
photography: Alen Karupovic // event design + planning: The Wedding Bliss Thailand // florals: IAMFLOWER as seen in this Mystical Garden Wedding in Northern Thailand!

First things first: can you legally get married in another country? It’s not really something you ever think about, but when you consider saying your vows abroad, you need to check out the local regulations to learn what is required to get officially get married there.

Many couples opt to sign their legal paperwork and have their marriage licenses filed in their home country, and then have a symbolic ceremony elsewhere. Why? Well, for instance, in France civil ceremonies take place at town hall (known as mairie in French); they’re officiated by the mayor and all couples must have the civil service to be legally married in France before they have a symbolic wedding at another venue or church. However, to get married in France, you need to have proof of residency in France for at least 30 days prior to the wedding application (along with a number of other legal documents).

While this isn’t the case for all countries, some places have very specific rules. So, many couples choose to get legally married and sign the paperwork in their home country, and then have a symbolic ceremony in their place of choice.

Additionally, if you find a place that allows for you to get married there, but it’s in a different language, remember that you’ll have to get documents officially translated when filing in the United States.

2. Hire a Planner

Santorini Greece Elopement
photography: Chris & Ruth // planning + design: Tie The Knot Santorini // florals: Betty Flowers Santorini as seen in this Edgy Meets Modern Elopement on the Island of Santorini

Hire a local planner! This is one of the NUMBER ONE things we’ve been told from couples who have planned a destination wedding. It’s one thing to plan a wedding…but to coordinate one in another country, a different time zone, and possibly a different language, it’s best to get a planner that can be your liaison. A good planner will know the right artists and vendors to help you create the vision you’re after, and knows who you can trust with your vision.

A local planner is a key element, especially when it comes to language barriers, customs, and making sure everything goes smoothly.

3. Book a Visit

Faroe Islands Elopement
photography: Phil Chester as seen in Rachel + Daniel’s Moody Elopement on the Faroe Islands

If at all possible, visit the area before booking a venue—it might look great online and on Instagram…but you find out upon arrival that it’s right next to a sewer or construction site… Alternatively, come up with a Plan B, just in case. You could opt for a coastal view or nearby mountain or field, perhaps?

4. Consider the Time of Year

European Mountain Wedding
photography: ISKRA Photography // venue: Kazbegi Rooms, Kazbegi, Georgia // planning: Mandarini Wedding as seen in this Gorgeous Wedding in the Mountains of Georgia

What months are the extremes for weather where you’re going? Will it be hurricane season, or is there a possibility of snow? Also, factor in when their peak tourist season is…along with spring break and summer break. Something to think about: when do the locals go on their holiday? Paris is rather sleepy and many shops close up in August as Parisians tend to flock to the countryside, so think about those things!

5. Support the Locals

Ruined Church Wedding
photography: Aloha Fotografia // planning: LeCult // florals: Museu de Grandes Novidades as seen in this Wedding at the “Open Sky Museum” AKA the Dilapidated Church Ruins in Brazil

Wherever you choose to go, support the local community of florists, food vendors, artists, planners, etc. You’ve chosen this location for a reason because you don’t have these surroundings at home…so now is the time to truly embrace the art, the culture, the uniqueness and charm of the place!

Some couples choose to hire a photographer that’s closer to home for them and bringing their photographer to the destination—but make sure they have the proper permits. Some places don’t require it, but professional photographers will know to research this and work that in to their travel fees.

Photographer Magnolia + Ember shares with us: Find a photographer that you love whether they are in your hometown or across the world. Nine times out of ten a photographer will travel to your desired location. Of course expect to have additional fees to cover their travel expenses. Have video chats with them, see what kind of input they could give in helping create a destination wedding, and get comfortable with a plan. I live and breath adventure, so it is natural for me to go down a rabbit hole in search to find ideal spots to exchange vows. Sometimes I discover secluded areas with less crowds in popular places like National Parks, and other times I find a venue in the area to accommodate the vision. Know there are options to fit any style and budget.

6. Let the Location Shine

photography: Ann-Kathrin Koch Photography // venue name: Aureum Palace Resort Bagan, Bagan, Myanmar as seen in this Dreamy Destination Wedding in Bagan, Myanmar

To piggyback off of the last topic, when you hire locals that know the area—they can show you the hidden gems (this includes restaurants, cool bars, amazing views). Consider why you chose the place you are saying your vows at and incorporate those aspects. Do you love the food? Are there any traditions associated with the place that you’d like to incorporate? What about the place drew you to it? Are they known for their artwork (like tiles in Portugal and Italy)? Try your best to celebrate the local community, contribute to their economy and boost local artists.

If you let the beauty of the location shine, this could also cut back on unnecessary décor, so you can let that part of the budget go to souvenirs or experiences!

*Sometimes you can find cool Airbnbs that make for excellent getting ready pictures…and occasionally even serve as the venue! (This bride found an old abbey in Ireland on Airbnb that ended up serving as the venue!)

7. Factor in Travel Days

Camel India Wedding
photography: Danelle Bohane // ceremony venue: Thar Desert as seen in this Handmade India Desert Wedding

Flight delays happen. Weather happens. Things happen. Factor in a couple of extra days (or even a week) so you can settle in, take a breather, and also accommodate for any jet lag. And, let’s hope this is not the case—but in the off chance some of your luggage gets lost, you can find replacements during those breather days.

Also, is it one flight to get there? Or are there multiple connecting flights? Once you’ve arrived in the country, do you then have to take a bus, train or boat? Keep in mind that sometimes public transportation workers go on strike (it happened to us in Italy!) and you won’t always make it at your desired time.

And, if all goes smoothly, then cool—you’ve got a few days to experience a different locale and explore with your love!

8. Dress for the Environment

Colorful Baja Mexico Wedding
photography: Jenn Emerling // venue: Hotel San Cristobal, Todos Santos, Baja, Mexico // planning: Judy Morgan as seen in this Colorful Casual Wedding on the Baja Coastline with a Reception Among Ruins

What’s the weather going to be like at your location? If it’s a warm place, we suggest bringing several light dresses that are quick and easy to pull on so you can run errands. Or, if it’s a cooler climate, bring things you can layer easily.

Find a wedding dress + attire to suit the location—whether this means breathable fabrics for a tropical wedding or something regal and embellished for a French fête, consider the environment.

9. Getting All Your Amenities There

photography: Shari + Mike // wedding dress: Lian Carlo Design as seen in These Two Took a Helicopter to Their First Look Location in the Canadian Mountains!

Have you thought about how you’re going to get your wedding dress there? We highly suggest making it your carry-on—if you explain to the flight attendants, there’s a good chance they will be able to hang the dress up for you. The last thing you want is to arrive and have your luggage get lost…dress and all.

If you’re bringing any décor from home, perhaps ask a family member to bring it in their luggage (we’ve heard from some brides that wanted a particular look for their linens and it was easier to source in the US). However, we highly suggest and implore you to choose local artists to help you create the look you’re after.

10. Make it an Experience for Your Guests

photography: Barb Simkova + Max Power, Tara McMullen Photography // location: Cartagena, Colombia // planning: The Eventeur as seen in This Couple Said I Do in the Middle of the Caribbean, Then Everyone Jumped Into the Water!

Your guests have traveled across the world to be there with you, so make it an event! Since you’re already on ‘vacation time,’ you don’t necessarily have to have the wedding on the weekend, which may open up more options. Many couples that have destination weddings choose to have a series of days exploring and adventuring together in the foreign locale.

Our suggestion: go on a food tour of the local area. This is a great way to sample local dishes you might not otherwise come across, find a favorite that reminds you of your wedding, and you can even bring a recipe or two back home! This will also help set the mood and get your guests acquainted with the area.

Assign someone to be in charge of directing guests (other than you!) for friends and family that need assistance with getting there/directions. The last thing you want to be doing is mapping out directions for every person that flies in and spending hours trying to find them.

To add to the overall experience, welcome bags with amenities are always a welcome touch! This could be something that’s reflective of nearby businesses and the environment: local chocolates or treats, sunscreen for tropical locations, artisanal products, etc.

The bride from this Intimate Destination Wedding Among the Rolling Hills of the Italian Countryside shares: For us, our top priority was making sure our guests who flew halfway across the world had a good time. We set up activities during the week for once in a lifetime experiences with our favorite people including excursions and day trips to nearby cities. While the wedding day was about us, we wanted the week to be about them and celebrating that they traveled so far to be with us.

11. Transportation for Yourselves + Guests

Hippie Love Bus Wedding Transportation
photography: From SF With Love // venue name: Toll House, Bell Valley, Boonville, California, USA // event design + planning: Gillian Shenon Events as seen in this Haute Hippie: Elegant “Summer of Love” Wedding in Northern California

Keep in mind that some people may not be able to join you on the big day as travel can be a major expense and can be difficult for older family members. So, take who you want to surround you on your special day in to consideration.

It’s helpful + considerate to let your guests know as far in advance about the destination wedding, so they can plan out finances or look for good deals on flights.

If at all possible, it’s easier to have everyone at the same hotel (or in the proximity) for coordinating events and excursions. Will you be hiring vans to transport guests? Is everything within walking distance? Do they need to take public transportation? How do they get to and from the hotel once they arrive in the airport? As the wedding date gets closer, send your guests an itinerary of all the events going on with locations, time, transportation, and attire.

*Some airlines and hotels offer group discounts if the bookings are made early enough—so figure out if you want to book a block of rooms and coordinate with guests. As the wedding date gets closer, send your guests an itinerary of all the events going on with locations, time, and attire.

12. Print Your Receipts + Correspondences

To help you stay organized, create a file of all your correspondence and print out documents. Many people keep all this info on their phone, but what happens if you lose your phone or laptop while abroad with all your contact info and the schedule?

Make a physical copy, better yet, two.

13. Have a Plan B

photography: The Arroyos // venue name: Deelin Mor Lodge, Carran, County Clare, Ireland // event design: Annie Spring

Things happen. Have a Plan B, just in case! Figure out an alternative for if it rains, where the closest shop is in case someone forgets the pants to their suit (it happens!) or a bridesmaid’s dress gets lost. And, also be open to embracing whatever is thrown your way—it’s all part of the adventure!

The bride from this Utterly Enchanting + Intimate Destination Wedding in Ireland (pictured above) shares: We hadn’t even planned to have the wedding at the monastic abbey until two days before we wed—but once we saw it, we knew. It’s like these settings were placed in our path somehow, and it all came together to create a wedding that was both perfectly Irish and perfectly ‘us’.

We’d love to hear where you’d like to say your vows. Let us know all the dreamy locations so we can start planning our next trip below! For more inspiration, check out all of the destination weddings we’ve shared here!