“Destination weddings are hugely popular in the U.S. Image Source/Getty Images
An invitation to a wedding in the Caribbean at a beachside resort sure sounds lovely. It also sounds expensive. Destination weddings used to be a rarity, but today they account for 23 percent of all weddings in America, according to The Knot. Seven out of 10 destination weddings take place outside the continental U.S., with Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean as the top three locations, according to the website GroupTravel.org.
So, what’s behind the increase in these weddings? Good weather is the No. 1 factor, according to GroupTravel.org. But wedding planners have more fascinating answers.
"More [couples] are deciding that they want to throw the most important party (their wedding!) their way!" emails Catherine Bachelier, a Southern California wedding planner. "This means politely saying ‘no’ to the standard 200-person party when they really want to have their favorite 50 people to indulge."
For Emilie Dulles, a calligraphy and event printing expert who has worked on hundreds of destination weddings via her company Dulles Designs, the reason comes down to changing lifestyles.
"Nowadays, with couples meeting later on in life –– and in more diverse settings such as college, graduate school, workplaces, and exotic vacations –– it is rare today that both families are located so closely to one another, or share the same background. More often than not, the engaged couple’s families reside in different towns, states, or even countries," she says via email. "So, over the last 20 years, more couples have been opting for destination weddings. This gives the couple and both families an even playing field in terms of travel, logistics, and event influence."
The Guests’ POV
So the bridal couple may be loving the exotic setting. But what about the guests? Fifty-six percent of respondents to a 2019 Bankrate survey said it was "in poor taste" for a couple to plan a ceremony where the guests had to pay all the travel expenses to attend. Thirty percent added that not attending a wedding because of cost had negatively impacted their relationship with the couple.
That kind of makes the destination wedding sound presumptuous. Denver-based destination wedding planner Katherine Frost says she often fields this concern from bridal couples. Her take? "Consider that many people are out of state and will have to travel to join your nuptials anyway. Now, instead of having to book a hotel in Pasadena, they are booking one in St. Croix. If you give guests enough time to plan ahead, many will be happy for the excuse to travel someplace fabulous," she says via email.
"What keeps a destination wedding from becoming presumptuous is when the engaged couple is self-aware and mindful of how their expectations, tastes, time, travel, and costs will impact their guests," adds Dulles. "A wedding is not only about the engaged couple, but also their family and friends, so destination decisions have to be considered carefully."
She remembers being invited to a wedding on a remote Greek island that could only be reached by ferry two days a week –– "assuming local boat captains are in the right mood and ocean conditions are cooperative. My husband and I politely declined due to the risks. So did most of the other guests."
To avoid being the type of bride or groom that goes viral with over-the-top expectations, experts suggest following a few rules of thumb:
1. Run the Idea by Your Closest Folks
Most people have an A-list of must-have attendees, and everyone else who’s able to come is gravy. Pose the destination idea with your main squad first, suggests Jenna Miller, creative director of national wedding website Here Comes The Guide. First, lay out the thought process for the location choice. "Explaining the reasons behind having a destination wedding — whether it be the ‘neutral’ territory rationale or simply wanting a more intimate affair — will help alleviate any frustration or confusion guests may experience right off the bat," she says in an email.
Then, discuss the potential dates and costs. "Asking your VIP guests (parents, siblings, future bridal party members, etc.) if they would be able to attend before moving forward with any destination wedding plans will help circumvent unwanted absences," Miller says. "If your nearest and dearest can’t be there, it’s definitely worth reconsidering your far-flung destination (unless you want to elope, of course!)."
2. Keep it Real
You might want to haul off to France for a decadent affair a la Halle Berry, Avril Lavigne or Mark Ronson, but don’t expect many of your guests to follow suit. "Choosing a destination location that’s actually affordable will enable more guests to attend. Planning a wedding in the south of France will eliminate much more of your guest list than a wedding in Miami, right?" Miller says.
3. Give Lots of Notice
The experts suggest a minimum of nine months’ notice for destination weddings, to give guests time to plug it into their calendars, save their pennies and make all of the necessary arrangements. Also be sure to provide all pertinent details on a wedding website, and be mindful of the wording.
"Gauge what the feelings are when you send out the initial save-the-dates prior to formal invitations," suggests Kylie Carlson, CEO, International Academy of Wedding & Event Planning. "Make sure that the wording is personal and sincere, noting that you hope everyone can attend, but completely understand if it’s asking too much. This will help you determine who can likely come and who can’t. That way you can reserve the RSVPs for the wedding invitations without making anyone feel bad for having to opt out."
4. Sweeten the Deal
While it’s not protocol for the couple to pay for guests’ travel expenses, it helps if the couple provides ways to lessen them. Creative director Miller suggests hiring a travel agent. "Travel agents have extensive knowledge of many popular destinations and are often able to negotiate with resorts or other venues to secure the best pricing — and perks!" Footing the bill for some group activities (and meals, if it’s not at an all-inclusive resort) is also welcome.
5. Be Graciously Understanding
Even with all this prep, it’s likely that someone important won’t be able to make the trek, for whatever personal reason (lack of vacation time, limited finances, health, and so on). "It’s important that the bride and groom not get offended if friends and family cannot join them," notes Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert with The Protocol School of Texas in an email. "A destination wedding is costly for guests who have their own family budgets and travel plans to consider."
No matter how disappointed the couple might be by the absence of a childhood best friend or two, it’s vital to the health of the future relationship that they maintain some perspective.
"You have to understand that less people are going to attend [your destination wedding] and you have to be OK with that," emails Whitney Cox, wedding coordinator at Vegas Weddings. "Typically, you are asking people to take a day or more off work and spend money on a flight, so be gracious if you find out friends can’t attend."
Now That’s Devious
Some couples deliberately plan destination weddings as a way to invite "everyone" while expecting (make that hoping) that most guests won’t show up.