I know this is a favorite claim among “I’m not like other girls” girls, but I’m not lying when I say I really never thought about my wedding as a kid. I loved fairy-tale princess weddings as much as the next red-blooded American child, but they never really captured my imagination. This might be because I didn’t grow up in a part of the country with much of a wedding culture; it might also be because the weddings I actually attended in my youth were, frankly, just not a ton of fun. The most fun I had at a wedding between the ages of 0 and 27 was when I was 8 and my cousin and I tried to give the bride a hug after playing a game we had creatively coined “mud fight.” Other than that, weddings tended to be what I now think of as “bat mitzvah” weddings: the formulaic procession of ceremony, cocktails, hotel ballroom, overcooked catered dinner, awkward dance floor, leave when your feet hurt too much to even pretend to be having fun anymore. Very fun at 13, but a bit rote at 33. I’ve definitely been to great weddings with this formula – but to a lot of “meh” ones as well.
I’m clearly not alone in this thinking. I’ve been seeing less of these weddings and more non-traditional variations: backyard parties, dive bar events, simple courthouse affairs, and yes, the increasingly popular destination wedding. Gun to my head, I would probably have said what I used to picture for myself was some kind Carrie Bradshaw skirtsuit courthouse event—until I hit upon the idea of a destination wedding. I first visited Positano on a whim when I was doing a grad school course in Italy in my mid-20’s, and found it so beautiful and magical that I just wanted to maybe, dare I say…visit with the love of my life? Bring all my friends and family there? Throw a massive party? On that trip I essentially Stendhal Syndrome-d myself into finally wanting a wedding.
When I attended my first destination wedding (coincidentally in Positano – don’t worry, my friend had no idea I’d had a Positano moment – she is blameless!), I became 100% sure it was what I wanted for myself: a long weekend of beautiful surroundings, complete relaxation, and, best of all, a life changing travel experience with a wonderfully curated group of humans. I went to a few more destination weddings after that, including some with my now-husband, and by the time we got to planning our own festivities, I knew exactly what I wanted. And guess what: we had it!
For our wedding, we wanted to create the feeling of a relaxing weekend away at a country estate (someone may have just watched the second season of Bridgerton), somewhere that could accommodate all 60 guests on site. We found our dream venue for an equally dreamy price in the French countryside, and a year later, we celebrated our wedding in June of 2023. We had dinner in the garden the first night; a pool party with a BBQ and spritz bar the second afternoon; dinner in town that second night; the ceremony and reception the next day; and brunch the final morning. Guests reported that it felt like a real vacation for them. Everyone got to mingle leisurely with old friends and new, and take part in activities on their own time (for our group, this included several nighttime trips to the cute yet terrifying old graveyard nearby). Everything was planned out and taken care of, allowing guests to focus on just having fun. We all got to experience the beautiful chateau and nearby medieval ruins, the countryside, the small town, and amazing local food. We even incorporated aspects of French culture–for example, we had a giant profiterole tower instead of a cake– which was a fun way to add further unique touches.
Our wedding ended up being exactly what I wanted, with regards to experience, planning, and especially cost. Thus, I am here to share my wisdom for anyone else considering taking the destination plunge. Below are the pros, cons, and hot tips for anyone thinking of tying the knot abroad.
I won’t beat around the bush: anyone who’s had anything to do with a wedding in the U.S. knows it is needlessly, stupidly, insultingly expensive. Many outlets report a nationwide wedding average of $30,000, but most people I know who got married in a big or medium-sized city spent between at least $50,000 and $100,000. As a Swedish friend observed, “American weddings are a circus.” We love our big once-in-a-lifetime affairs, and vendors know this – and know people will pay whatever it takes to get their perfect day. Flowers, catering, hair, makeup, photography, basically everything gets a massive markup in the U.S. when it’s for a wedding. However, many places, even traditionally expensive countries, simply don’t have the same obsession with big weddings as Americansand price their services accordingly. These prices and savings obviously fluctuate depending on where you go and where in the U.S. you’re comparing it to, but with some research and planning, there’s a very good chance that your dream venue, aesthetic, food, and more would be more affordable outside the U.S.
Again, the U.S. has a wedding obsession, and everyone in possession of a beautiful venue here wants to get their bag. In the U.S., if you have a big historic house, a nice slice of nature with event capabilities, or an aesthetic hotel, you’re going to price them in accordance with American wedding demand and prices. When I was shopping around for venues in Europe, I was shocked at the prices. I found our venue (on the charmingly-titled “rentavilla.com“) and fell in love with it. This venue–a chateau in southeastern France just a couple hours from Paris by train–cost less for three nights, with all guests able to stay on the property, than the average cost of $10k for one night at a venue in the Bay Area (“average” being perhaps a useless metric, as most venues within my hometown of San Francisco range from $20k to $70k, and nearby wine country isn’t much better).
Let me say that again: I got a beautiful, historic chateau with a pool and many acres of land, with no curfew and rooms for all of my ~60 guests, for three nights and four days, for less than I would have paid for about 8 hours of party time at a venue in the Bay Area. I’m not exactly sure how Europe manages this; all I can think is it just has a lot more beautiful old buildings lying around. This also seems to be the same for a lot of non-American countries outside Europe, where you’re even more likely to find a venue that costs less than what you’d be paying in America.
VIP Guest List
This is may be a con for some people, but I found this to be a pro. With a destination wedding, it’s much more acceptable to have a streamlined guest list. Additionally, the obligation invites are more likely to weed themselves out. Feel obligated to invite your freshman year roommate whose wedding you went to five years ago and who you haven’t seen since? Chances are they won’t want to blow all their vacation time at your wedding, and will politely bow out. Same goes for that cousin you don’t like, that step-great-aunt, and all the other randoms you may feel obligated to ceremonially include but have no real desire to actually hang out with. Likewise, since the expectation to suck it up and make it work is much more diminished given the time and expense of a destination wedding, the guests that do come tend to be the most down and enthusiastic crowd possible. With a smaller guest list, you actually spend time with people instead of a quick word with each guest over the course of one evening. That’s definitely a best-case scenario in my book.
The Once-in-a-lifetime experience
I saved the best for last, because this is a big one. As anyone who has been to a stellar destination wedding can attest, they can be a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience for guests as well as the bride and groom. As I researched wedding planning, I kept coming across the term “guest-forward wedding.” This cracked me up, because it implies that the default is weddings that don’t actually care about guest experience. This is somewhat true, sadly; weddings seem to be the one type of party where it’s acceptable for the fun of the invitees to take a backseat to that of the hosts. Many weddings seem to be what my friends and I call “bear witness” weddings, where guests are essentially invited just to performatively bear witness to a moment in the hosts’ lives. As a society, I think it’s time we admit this is a karmically bad way to go about this. Call me crazy, but I strongly believe that if you throw a party and people go out of their way to come, you should try to show them a good time!
My friend once told me that when her parents got married, the pastor said, “A wedding is not just an excuse for a party.” She reported that her parents had to stifle giggles because really, isn’t that actually what it is? A marriage is obviously serious business, but if the wedding part isn’t just an excuse for a party, it would be traditionally just a paperwork session with a notary, which is clearly not the case. For my wedding, I wanted to take the opportunity to throw a great party for the people I care about. To me, the opportunity to give something back to our most important friends and family, and celebrate having them in our lives (at about half the price) was too good to pass up.
Lastly, aside from the small conveniences – More time to hang out! Everyone just changed into bathing suits and jumped in the pool when their reception shoes hurt! – seeing all our loved ones come across the ocean to hang out together in one beautiful place was a wonderfully surreal and amazing experience that my husband and I will cherish forever.
Travel costs for guests
This is undeniably the biggest con. Unfortunately, even if you’re saving money on the wedding costs yourself, you’re essentially passing at least part of that price on to guests. Depending on how far you’re traveling, guests have to pay for plane tickets, accommodations, time off work, and other possible costs like childcare and pet sitters. Destination weddings are definitely better suited for couples whose ideal guest list mostly has people who can spare time away from home and have travel as one of their splurging priorities. Luckily, most of our friends tend to prioritize travel and were down to use our wedding as an anchor for other summer travel plans. However, this may not always be the case…
Smaller guest list
Travel is expensive, capitalism is oppressive, and leaving the house is physically and mentally draining. It’s unfortunately inevitable that a destination wedding will result in some invitees not being able to make it work. For us, some of our older family members weren’t able to handle the travel; some people couldn’t spare the money or time off work; and some people just couldn’t make it work around their children and/or pregnancies. With our friend group being predominantly in the early 30’s range, the baby drop-out rate was definitely the biggest hit to our guest list.
Certain things are just going to be harder when travel is involved. There’s language barriers, cultural differences, and lots of fun little issues like, “How can I get every step of my expensive skincare routine into one tiny EU-approved plastic baggie?” Packing everything you need for a wedding abroad is definitely a lot harder than just throwing everything in the car and driving an hour to the local vineyard. Likewise, we did our best to make sure everything was seamless for guests; for example, we tried to get everyone on the same trains and shuttles, but for people who either couldn’t make it work or even missed a train, it was incumbent upon us to arrange other transportation for them. It wasn’t the hardest thing in the world, as we were able to just have our planner make arrangements with a cab company, but it was definitely one more thing to worry about. There are simply a lot more moving pieces with the travel element, and no matter how detailed and clear you make your wedding website, most people won’t read it (as any bride can attest) and will come to you with a lot of their questions.
Overall, while these cons definitely presented some challenges and bummers, I wouldn’t change a thing! For me, it was worth the tradeoff to have such a special experience.
Get a planner
Just do it. Those logistical cons above? Consider them close to neutralized if you have a planner. First off, planners are often cheaper in other countries. Second, researching stuff like local florists and bakeries in another country is NOT something I recommend (and not just because most countries’ local businesses are not as online as American ones tend to be). A planner can not only hook you up with all the best vendors, but help with the communication issues presented by language and cultural barriers (like navigating people in a Catholic country working on Sundays). You’ll have someone on the ground who can do things at the venue, go to tastings, and overall do all the footwork you can’t. Likewise, aside from the travel aspect, wedding planners are professionals for a reason: they’ll have so many great ideas and creative solutions to problems that they will absolutely pay for themselves in the end. I can definitely say that without my amazing planner, Amy from Peaches and Cream Weddings, my wedding would have been half as fun, twice as expensive, and about a hundred times more stressful.
Get legally married in the U.S. first
This is a controversial one, but I stick by it–as a lawyer, the mere thought of dealing with the paperwork of a foreign bureaucracy gives me nightmares. Some people want their ceremony to also be the legal moment, and that’s totally fine! However, doing a courthouse quickie makes things much easier, and is likely cheaper than figuring it out abroad. My husband and I got legally married before our big wedding at our gorgeous city hall for just the price of the marriage license. We loved having that small, more intimate moment to ourselves, and got to invite family who couldn’t make it to our destination wedding to dinner afterward. It was a beautiful day with just our parents, siblings, and some other close family, and I was grateful we got to have both types of wedding experiences, without any extra administrative headaches.
Make the time for hair and make-up trials
It might be hard to work in, and I totally understand not wanting to waste your precious time with guests on trials, but I highly recommend planning hair and make-up trials before the actual day. Even the best beauty specialists aren’t mind readers, and it’s invaluable to have some time to figure everything out. We went over to our venue before the guests and did our hair trial in town a couple days before the ceremony. We also did the make-up trial at the tail end of the pool party the day before. Not ideal? Sure. Did it make the wedding day easier and gave me some great hair and make-up for other wedding events? Absolutely!
Go for three nights
You might be tempted to do just a two-night affair–one night for rehearsal dinner, another for the actual wedding–but in my experience, that can feel a bit rushed. If you can afford it, I highly recommend three nights. That’s one night to settle in, another to get in the groove, and the third for the big event. I have also noted in my experience that people tend to get a bit excited the first night, then end up massively hungover for the big day. I enacted my own Machiavellian plan of letting everyone party hard the first night; get day drunk the second day and thus sleepy the second night; then have them fresh and down to clown for the reception. Manipulative? Yes, according to my husband’s friends. Effective? Also yes!
Make a battle plan for garment transport
This seems like a small thing, but if I can save anyone from making the same mistakes I did, I will devote myself to that cause. As I found out the hard way, gone are the days that you would just tell the airline attendants that you were traveling with a wedding dress, and they would just congratulate you and hang it up. We had to fight to get closet space on the plane (despite the airline’s official policy on accommodating wedding dresses, the stewards claimed they had no place to put our things before begrudgingly agreeing to put them in the first class closet), then had to schlep our outfits through multiple cabs and trains once we arrived. I would recommend investing in a good, sturdy garment bag specifically made for plane travel, and make sure that your planner and/or venue has a steamer. All the travel wrinkles came out of our outfits instantly, but the mental scars of dragging the increasingly-battered flimsy garment bag from the bridal boutique all over Gare Montparnasse will stay with me forever.
In conclusion, I’m not saying a destination wedding is for everyone. Likewise, if you love the traditional format, that’s amazing! For me, as a person who loves travel, new experiences, and mass amounts of quality time with loved ones, the destination route was the perfect way to celebrate a big life event. So if you’re thinking about it, use the above as a springboard and start doing a bit of research! Neither I nor anyone else I know who did a destination wedding had any kind of event planning experience, let alone internationally, and we all still pulled it off. If it sounds like your kind of party, it’s absolutely doable, and well worth it.