Destination Weddings Don’t Have to Break the Bank

These days, for the launching of a lifetime together, the only thing better than a properly organized wedding is a properly organized destination wedding.

After all, it’s not just a wedding. It’s a wedding, a vacation, and, often times, a honeymoon all in one.

And there are a lot of them!

Destination weddings account for 20% of the 2.4 million weddings every year in the U.S. It is a $16 billion industry with the average price of a destination wedding going for around $48,000. Las Vegas (80,000) and Hawaii (20,000) host the most destination weddings each year.

Know how to make a wonderful thing even better? Have a well-considered spending plan, then bring it in with room to spare.

Yes, even destination weddings need a budget. You’d be surprised how sexy and romantic a destination wedding budget can be. Listen, nobody wants the newlyweds to be taking out a loan — although lots of people do it — and paying off a party when they could be saving for a cozy first love nest. (Nor does anyone want parents of the happy couple tapping their retirement savings to stage a destination wedding.)

How to achieve this marvelous, desirable, marriage-enhancing thing? We thought you’d never ask.

For Your Faraway Wedding, Go Local

Because local knowledge is likely the best knowledge, tap resources at your destination.

Karen Riley-Love, of AMIBeachWeddings.com on Anna Maria Island, FL, says an experienced, local coordinator “helps not only to navigate an unfamiliar place and make sense of regulations, permits, and rules” — no simple trick — but also will provide guidance about vendors likely to provide the best service or product for the couple’s budget.

A top-flight local planner will have contacts with nearby providers for hairstyling, makeup, catering, photography, transportation “and the secrets to finding lodging.”

Stick to Your Guns

Chances are, and as Riley-Love notes, for a wedding far from home, you’ll need a wedding planner — someone who knows the local ropes and is connected to nearby vendors.

One place to begin: Visit destinationweddings.com, which offers a wide slate of topics, everything from planning or attending a destination wedding, to destinations, to group travel perks, to etiquette. There’s even a section for reviews managed by an independent provider.

Trying to manage it on your own? Courage. WeddingWire.com and TheKnot.com are top-drawer for finding indigenous stylists, photographers, florists, catering companies, and, says internet businessman and recent groom Justin Kearns of turc.io, “just about any other wedding vendor you could wish for.”

Key info: Each website provides examples of each vendor’s work, pricing, and verified reviews.

No matter how large or small, make it absolutely clear from the get-go that you have a budget, and it is not to be ignored. This is true of any wedding, of course, but especially a destination wedding, where you will be playing on unfamiliar turf.

We know of a couple who, while plotting a destination wedding at a resort in the Blue Ridge mountains, were presented to a florist whose minimum event order is $50,000, ignoring the couple’s plain instruction that their top end for flowers was $20,000. (Both figures seem dizzying to us, but, still, that $30,000 gap is nothing to sneeze at.)

The bride-to-be, an attorney, responded with a sternly worded lawyerly letter scolding the planner for having wasted everyone’s time, and suggesting she would consider any similar hijinks a breach of contract.

Beware Budget-Busting ‘Kickback’ Schemes

While we’re on the subject of tamping down expenses, beware of double-dealings Some planners have been known to hire only vendors who pay the planner for the privilege of getting the job.

That is the definition of the old “kickback” scheme.

You’re paying a planner a fee to make sure things are properly lined up and organized, but also to get you the best bang for your vendor buck. Planners who expect to collect a wink-wink fee from vendors — paid by you — are double-dipping; and that’s a fireable offense.

If you hear the term “preferred vendor,” your bridey sense should begin tingling. Too often, the term involves pay-to-play. How do you find out? Simple, Riley-Love says: Ask.

“Money changing hands can cloud the recommendation,” she says, “and brides and grooms can simply ask if the vendors pay a fee to the coordinator.”

Planning the Big Day

First, because it is the decision from which all others will flow, decide what sort of ceremony you want. Big or small? Intimate or sprawling? Family and close friends only, or a reunion of everyone you and your spouse-to-be have known forever? Religious or secular?

The type of ceremony you choose will strongly suggest the appropriate style theme. Know, by this point, what you want in your wedding, and assemble a list, ranked from must-haves to wish-list expendables.

Now you’re ready to discuss your options with your planner, or a “wedding concierge” (see below), or individual vendors; understand that the theme goes beyond the selection of colors, extending to every detail. While you’ll want to make the most of your wedding palette, be sure to weigh every consideration against your budget.

Choose Your Venue Wisely

Wedding size and palette set? Excellent.

Now, it is one thing to decide you want to hold your wedding in the Blue Ridge, or Lake Tahoe, or Barbados, or Cancun, or Key West, or even Venice, Italy, and quite another to know, precisely, which venue in any of those locations will best suit your desires and budget.

Doing it yourself? Even if you’re a frequent visitor, back yourself up by consulting local experts, including the indigenous chamber of commerce (perhaps you can arrange an online introduction via your hometown chamber). And, by all means, check the online reviews of the venue candidates that catch your eye.

Incidentally, if you like the idea of a destination wedding, but aren’t sure where to hold it, Apple-users can tune into Wedding Spot, a free iOS app that allows you to browse more than 10,000 venues, as well as presenting an option to narrow choices based on budget, location, style, and guest count.

Use the app to book a tour, as well as sign up for access to deals and discounts, plus a healthy slice of local knowledge.

Planning Ahead Can Stretch Your Dollars

As with any travel tied to a vacation, the earlier you nail down your plans, the better. Start your search online, and make a list of airlines, resorts, and even transportation services that can accommodate your itinerary.

Starting early means you have a better chance to score lower fares, better room rates, and other discounts. Sign up with reputable sources such as Trip Advisor or travelbay.co. If going to sea is in your plans, check out cruisecritic.com.

If you’re flying, remember:

  • Some days of the week traditionally are less expensive than others.
  • The sooner you buy your tickets, the more likely you are to score the lowest available fares.
  • The earlier you commit, the more likely you will be able to apply mileage rewards to the purchase price.

Along those same lines, if you have a rewards account with a hotel conglomerate or a credit card company, investigate applying your points to where you plan to stay. You could be pleasantly surprised.

Holding the Line

Even if you’re going somewhere exotic for your wedding, there are ways to keep expenses under control. Remember the story about the florist with the breathtaking minimum-order requirement. Nice work if you can get it, right? Nonetheless, flower arrangements, and flower arranging, are among the areas where you can influence the bottom line.

Find out if there are people in your wedding party who have experience with flower arrangements and design, and recruit them to pitch in. Recruit others to help them carry out the task. You will be astonished at how enthusiastic your friends and loved ones are to make a loving donation of their skills to put their stamp on your special day.

This works especially well, says Noel Ellie, head of a global public relations and production company from New York City, if your wedding is in a tropical location. Set your guests loose on a flower-picking hunt the day before the wedding, store the bounty in cold storage overnight, and stage a “Be a Special Part of Our Wedding” brunch the morning of the event.

“If you are super-picky,” Ellie says, “give sample ideas of what the arrangements could look like by printing out photos.”

Along a similar line, if among your attendees are makeup artists, hair stylists, or seamstresses, Ellie recommends asking whether they’d be willing to volunteer their work instead of shopping for wedding presents.

Rather than tactless, this is another opportunity for your guests to meaningfully contribute to your special day … and it could save a ton.

Remember our couple planning the Blue Ridge Mountains wedding? Not only are they considering importing makeup artists and hairstylists at roughly $4,000, they’ll be footing their accommodations for at least two nights.

At the very least, investigate whether local professionals can deliver the look you’re after.

There are ways to save on photographers/videographers, too. In Ellie’s experience, more than a few extremely capable shooters are willing to do the work in exchange for travel expenses.

Back to our Blue Ridge Mountains couple: They wanted staged photos and video of their proposal in the groom’s hometown — which is about 1,000 miles from where the couple met and work – but rather than hire a local photographer, they used the shooter who’s scheduled to immortalize the weekend wedding events.

Fortunately, the photographer had previously agreed to foot extraneous expenses (such as travel to a distant city) in exchange for her next referral. In short, virtually everything is negotiable.

“Also,” says Ellie, “if there are going to be media, press, influencers or celebrities on hand, be sure to explain [or have your planner explain] the promotional opportunities.”

Think Outside the Box

Many of the ideas suggested above involve outside-the-box thinking. Don’t stop there. The internet makes possible endless opportunities to achieve what you want in a destination wedding without conforming to tradition.

Rebekah Evans, owner and founder of FutureMrsBox.com — a subscription service that delivers custom wedding-related items to prospective brides each month —  recommends virtual wedding planners. “Yes,” she says, “this is a ‘thing.’ ”

These hybrid planners, some of whom refer to themselves as a “bridal concierge,” can help you with your wedding plans at a fraction of what a full-fledged planner would charge.

“Most,” Evans says, “will schedule calls with you once or twice to go over the details of your wedding. I tell brides to make sure they bring all of their potential questions on these calls. This is [their] opportunity to get the best bang for [their] buck!”

Tap Voices of Experience

Use verified reviews to help get a grip on what to expect. Get into a message group in the location of your destination wedding. Use others’ experiences and contacts to your advantage.

Again, the internet is your friend. So reach out.

“Local wedding groups network together,” AMI Weddings Riley-Love notes, “and a question as simple as, ‘Who is the best wedding professionals for the best budget prices?’ will often yield vendors who are highly respected, yet reasonably priced.”

Keeping Track

Anymore, it is the rare couple indeed who don’t need to keep a lid on wedding expenses. So we’ve decided you’ll want to establish and track your budget. But rather than writing everything in a notebook, create a spreadsheet, and, for maximum accessibility among the players, put it in an online lockbox, such as Google Docs.

Recent groom Kearns recommends going the “wallet” or “envelope” route. His company’s WeddingWallet.com  doesn’t just chart your expenses; it helps couples manage their budget and payments: As vendors are established for each service, invite them to join the app, where they can be paid directly and intermittently.

“This will remove a lot of the stress that comes with managing wedding finances,” Kearns said. Paying down your wedding bills over time “is a lifesaver when it comes to the week or day of the wedding. Trust me; we did this for our wedding and it made such a difference.”

As an alternative, you simply may want to use PayPal, which offers a variety of ways to pay, all the while keeping track of what’s been laid out.

Remember Your Guests

Destination weddings have become enough of a sensation that an internet niche has emerged to help guests curb their expenses, as well. Meet guestboard.co, described by founder Peter Vandendriesse as “a central message board for guests to interact and coordinate ahead of time to plan carpools, share flight deals, and more.”

All right, all you committed couples with serious cases of wanderlust mixed with romance. Now you know what to do, and how to save a buck when you do it. Remember us when the invitations go out.


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Jack Preston
jpreston@incharge.org

Jack Preston has won many awards as columnist and writer for newspapers, magazines and websites. He has written about Super Bowls, national and local politics, crime, business and many other topics in a career that has carried him from Florida to California and many stops in between. He uses this experience to offer insights and suggestions on the best ways to deal with debt in today's turbulent economy.