Planning a wedding is no easy feat – let alone a destination wedding where there are so many nuances to consider! If you’re newly engaged and ready to take the planning process head-on, you’re in the right place. As a destination wedding photographer, I’ve put together the ultimate guide to planning a destination wedding with a comprehensive 1.5-year timeline to help you enjoy the process as much as possible!
First up, and probably one of the most exciting components of planning your destination wedding, you’re going to need to choose your location! With countless options for where to host your dream wedding, it might be difficult to narrow it down to your favorites. Coming from someone who has helped tons of couples plan their day, I recommend choosing a location that means something to you as a couple. Just because everyone on social media seems to be eloping in places like Arizona or Colorado doesn’t mean you have to as well. Domestic locations like Maine, Jackson Hole, and Seattle are all stunning places to get married, but not as popular as others.
Along with that, remember that your wedding location will dictate the overall vibe and design of your day. If you’ve always imagined yourself in long, lace sleeves and a lengthy train, then having a destination wedding on the beach probably isn’t the best idea! If you already have a vision for what you want to look like on your wedding day, use that as somewhat of a guide for choosing your destination.
Another factor to consider when planning your destination wedding is the experience you’re providing to your guests. When picking venues and/or locations, ask yourself: How far are these locations from the airport? Do I need to provide transportation for my guests? Are these locations easily accessible for any guests who are elderly or disabled?
Lastly, consider the weather for your preferred destination wedding locations. It’s so important to understand this aspect when planning, especially if you’re not personally familiar with that location! For example, there’s a reason why people do not get married in Alaska in January – it’s dark most of the day and very cold. July is a far more popular month to plan a wedding there because the weather is perfect! When listing out your favorite locations, take the time to do some research on when the weather is the nicest before moving on to setting your date.
Especially when planning a destination wedding, hiring an experienced planner is an integral part of the process running smoothly. It’s much harder to plan a wedding in a location that you simply cannot visit beforehand. Hiring a destination wedding planner who is familiar with the location you’re getting married will make a world of a difference. Make sure you trust your planning team and your venue to make your day absolutely perfect.
Before you start exploring accommodations and venues, you’ll need to set a realistic budget for your destination wedding. Your planner can help you create (and stick to!) your budget if you’d prefer to have someone who is familiar with wedding costs help you with this process. Within your budget, determine what your priorities are so your planner knows how to properly allocate funds for each aspect of your dream wedding day. That way, when it’s time to start booking vendors, you’ll have a clear and concise idea of where your funds are going.
Now that you’ve created a budget that aligns with your priorities, you can start looking at accommodation options and wedding venues in your destination wedding location. If you’re getting married at an open, outdoor location, the process will be different than booking with a full-service wedding venue. For example, if you’re wanting to get married at a national park, they often require special permits to hold your ceremony there. If this is your plan, be sure to know how long it takes to get this permit at your preferred national park! Some parks are nearly impossible to get a permit for, so do your research well in advance and have a backup plan in case a permit is unavailable.
I’m so lucky to have traveled all over the world to document destination wedding days for my couples – here are a few of my favorite international locations if you’re still in need of some ideas!
Ireland is just so effortlessly beautiful, providing a calm beautiful setting for a destination wedding. Ireland welcomes millions of American tourists every year, so it is easy to accommodate travel for your guests. So many options for different aesthetics, from the coast to the rolling green hills and old estates, you can capture any vision here!
This destination wedding location is full of culture and color, known for its vibrant and rich wedding traditions. Couples getting married here have the unique opportunity of making transportation from your ceremony to reception a bit more exciting with la callejoneada – a celebratory parade with dancing and drinks! There is so much room for incorporating non-traditional colors and festivities into your destination wedding in San Miguel de Allende.
St. John and St. Thomas are beautiful islands made for romantic beach weddings. What I love about this location is your guests do not need a passport to get here, but it feels like you are in a completely different country! Intimate small weddings can be planned with an Airbnb on the coast with a private beach, or a large wedding can be planned on a resort property. This wedding location is great for party people looking to give their guests a dream beach vacation
Garden of the Gods, Colorado is a beautiful destination for an intimate wedding, elopement, or engagement photos. Many couples choose to exchange vows in the Garden of the Gods because it is easy to get to while also having an exotic background. Plus, you do not need a permit to get married at Garden of the Gods, unlike most National Parks. With many ceremony locations to choose from, most are accessible right from the road, for the couples who are adventure-ish.
Around 1 year out from your destination wedding date should be when you start booking your major wedding vendors. If you already have vendors you’ve been eyeing on social media, don’t hesitate to reach out to them sooner rather than later. Some vendors book quicker than others, so it never hurts to connect with them early on and inquire about their availability, especially if you’re already 99% sure you want to hire them!
I recommend hiring a photographer and videographer under one team – this allows both vendors to have one vision and style that results in capturing your stunning day with one universal vision. Hiring a team or duo eliminates the stress of ensuring both of them are coordinated and cohesive during the timeline of your wedding day! Additionally, hiring a photographer who can also help you plan your destination wedding is important, too. I love being able to help my couples plan their destination weddings to fit their personalities and their unique vision. My team and I can and will work closely with your planner to make sure everything is as close to perfect as possible!
At this point, you should already have a set location for your destination wedding. Now, it’s time to finalize your ceremony & reception venue! Your planner should be taking care of the logistics for you, but it’s up to you to choose a venue that matches your destination wedding day vision. Along with your venue, research local hotels and see if they offer discounts for reserving room blocks for your wedding guests. This will make it easier for all of your guests to stay in one building and have an easier time getting to and from your venue.
Once you’ve officially booked your venue, you can begin sending out invitations to your guest list! For a destination wedding, it’s especially important to have information such as the location, transportation options, nearest major airport, and preferred accommodations accessible to your guests. You can do this via your invitation suite or set up a wedding website where all of those details can be in one place.
Around 9 months out is when your destination wedding vision should be solid and ready to begin executing. Start working with your planner to iron out the logistics and decide on a color palette to begin sourcing decorations and rentals! If you’re having a wedding party, use your color palette to determine what they are wearing and make sure outfits are ordered way ahead of time. This is also the stage where you and your partner should be ordering your wedding attire so you have plenty of time to make alterations.
If you’re prioritizing guest experience (as I mentioned at the onset of this blog), then I’m sure you’ll want to spend time participating in some fun activities with them! Remember, your wedding isn’t just about the details and logistics – it’s about celebrating your love and having fun with your people. What are some activities that you’d enjoy with your family and friends? These events do not have to be anything crazy or extravagant – they can be as simple as going wine tasting or exploring the local area.
Get excited because you’re only 6 months out from your dream destination wedding day! To minimize as much stress as possible, this should be around the time that your plans are finalized. Contracts and agreements from all your major vendors should be taken care of, you and your planner should be deciding on the ceremony and reception layout (if applicable), and your final timeline should be in the works! You’ll have two different timelines that coordinate with each other – one with the overall events of your day, and one with your photography and videography schedule. Of course, I’ll be working closely with your planner to ensure your day runs as smoothly as possible!
If possible, planning a visit to your destination is a great way to get the lay of the land before your actual wedding day. You can utilize this time to take a little couples trip and have some fun! Book menu tasting with your caterer, baker, and/or venue while you’re there, and schedule any other in-person meeting with local vendors. This will also give you the opportunity to get familiar with the local area and make some precious memories in what will be such a sentimental location.
I’m sure your guests will appreciate the extra nudge to book their travel plans before it gets too late! No one wants to be scrambling at the last booking to buy their plane tickets or book their hotel room. Send out reminders around 6 months in advance, and maybe even personally check in with any friends and family members who are prone to procrastination. If you’re utilizing a wedding website, you may even be able to set automated reminders through the platform!
One of my favorite things to do with my destination wedding couples is planning for an adventure session either before or after your wedding day. This allows us to spend some extra (non-constricted) time getting photos of the two of you hanging out at your hotel/national park/Airbnb to capture the energy of your destination wedding location to the fullest. You can have this be an extension of your wedding portraits where you’re both back in your wedding attire, or it can be a fun, laidback couples session in any clothing of your choice!
At this point in the destination wedding planning process, you and your planner should be confirming guests’ RSVPs, taking note of any dietary restrictions, and ordering any wedding favors or personalized items. I would suggest starting to work on your vows, readings, and speeches around this time, too! Decide if you two are doing personalized vows either to be read privately or during your ceremony. If yes, don’t forget to order custom vow books on Etsy so they’ll arrive in time!
This process will greatly differ based on if you’re getting married in a domestic or international location. If you’re getting married internationally, it might be easiest to have a civil ceremony in your home state so that all of the legal paperwork and formalities are taken care of beforehand. Research your location’s marriage laws to confirm what the best course of action is! If you’re getting married within the U.S., most states require an appointment at a County Clerk’s office to obtain your marriage license. When researching, take note of what items you need to bring to that appointment, how many witnesses you need to sign the license, and if there is a waiting period before the license is valid.
Make sure all fittings for you, your partner, and your wedding party are scheduled at least one month before your leave for your destination wedding! During this time, you should also be coordinating with your planner for your onsite wedding rehearsal and walkthrough. Your timeline will be finalized before this happens and will be shared with your vendor team by your planner! I will also be in touch to finalize your photography and videography timeline, and then we’ll be good to go until your wedding day.
Especially if you’re traveling by plane to get to your destination wedding, make sure double and triple-check you have everything you need. Passports, boarding passes, identification – all of your travel documents should be in a folder for easy access to transportation. Pack your wedding attire in a garment bag along with any other outfits you’ll be wearing during your destination wedding weekend. Do a final walkthrough of all your luggage the day before you leave, and pack any last-minute toiletries the morning of. After that, you’re ready to get married!
Finally – all of this careful planning and preparation has led to this moment. Don’t forget to be in the moment as much as possible and soak up this celebratory time with your family and friends!
If you’re looking for a photography + videography team to document your dream destination wedding (and help you plan it, too!) then you’re in the right place. I’m Sarah, the lead photographer of Sarah Kellie Photo + Film, and I’d love to connect with you to see if we’re a match. To get in touch with my team and me about documenting your day, you can inquire via the contact form and I will get back to you soon!
Whether it's through photos that resemble oil paintings or films that make you feel like the star of your own movie, my aim is to offer an effortless and worry-free experience. So, go ahead and explore the blog, and if you feel a connection to our work and philosophy, we’d love to be part of your adventure.
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