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A 7-Step Guide to Planning a Perfect Destination Wedding

May 18, 2018
15 min read
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A destination wedding can double as your dream vacation, but it can be stressful to organize — especially if you're planning to host a ceremony halfway across the world. After all, planning from afar (and sometimes even making arrangements in a different language) is just the beginning. Couples will likely have to consider group flight bookings, hotel block reservations and a number of other logistics such as wedding ring declarations at customs and legal marriage requirements.

To help simplify the process, we highlighted seven important steps you can take to plan a perfect destination wedding — and collect major points and miles in the process.

Step 1: Take a points & miles inventory

Before you even pick a destination, it's time to factor in your points and miles inventory. If you're flooded with Hyatt points and Delta miles, consider a destination where you can easily utilize those points (or one you can reach using Delta or the airline's partners). This is also a great time to take advantage of new credit card sign-up bonuses. Make sure to do this at least three to six months in advance so you can reach your minimum required spend on necessary wedding costs. Those extra points and miles can later be used for a honeymoon.

Photo by Andra Lesmana via Twenty20.
Photo by Andra Lesmana via Twenty20.

Step 2: Pick a destination

Find a place that makes sense for you

In addition to using your points and miles stockpile to guide your destination selection process, there are other factors that may affect your decision, too, such as local weather patterns, school holidays and legal marriage requirements in other countries. You can have a mock wedding ceremony in the Galápagos, for example, but foreigners are not legally allowed to wed there. And France has a 40-day residency requirement before allowing you to lawfully get married.

If you're working with a tight budget, pick a destination closer to home or in a city where the ceremony will be more affordable. (New York City, for example, is one of the most expensive destinations in the world for a wedding — so simply leaving town can help reduce the costs.)

And remember to factor in expenses you may not have to deal with for a nearby wedding such as flights, hotel stays and dining out. Also account for the general cost of living in your destination to get an idea of your potential total spend.

And one guests will be excited about, too

Florida is a popular choice for destination weddings — and according to Jamie Lipman Rodriguez, owner and director of the Absolute Event Full Wedding & Event Planning Service (and the force behind a stunning Miami wedding for The Points Guy's chief-of-staff, Adam Kotkin) it's just as well-liked by guests.

Rodriguez told TPG that "South Florida is an [easily accessible] central location, [and] clients enjoy making a full weekend of their wedding."

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"Most statistics say you should expect about 20% less of your guest count for the wedding," Rodriguez said. "However, that rule of the thumb doesn't apply in south Florida. Most [guests] invited from out of town look to make a vacation of your wedding and it's rare that they'll miss the chance to do so."

Though your wedding is ultimately about you and your future spouse, it's important to consider whether or not your ceremony is somewhere your guests will happily visit, too.

Katie James Watkinson — a wedding and travel expert formerly of "Brides" magazine — agreed that reachability is key to having more friends and family accept your invitation. "Destinations that are accessible tend to have a higher guest turnout than those that require a multi-stop itinerary."

"Palm Beach, Napa Valley (by way of San Francisco) and Nashville," Watkinson explained, "are serviced by multiple daily nonstop flights, making it easy for guests to fly in and out for the weekend."

"International destinations such as Mexico's Riviera Maya, the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are likewise accessible and ideal for guests."

As it turns out, the three most popular spots for couples to have a destination wedding outside the continental United States are Mexico, the Caribbean and Hawaii, according to GroupTravel.

This is also the time to consider your guests' budgets. How many of your friends and family are realistically going to be able to afford flights to your destination wedding, or the cost of a hotel room upon arrival? This can help narrow your geographic purview (or, frankly, cut down the number of RSVPs).

"Weddings in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia can expect lower turnout, given the cost of long-haul flights and [the] vacation time required," said Watkinson.

"[With] anywhere that requires two or more stops, or more than a few thousand dollars all-in," she explained, "you can expect a low guest count if you're not subsidizing travel or hotel accommodations."

Step 3: Hire a local wedding planner 

Couples should strongly consider hiring a wedding planner based in their chosen destination. You may be compelled to work with someone in your area — especially if he or she came highly recommended — but if you're exchanging vows in a different time zone, or a country where you don't speak the language, don't underestimate how helpful it is to have someone on the ground. Some venues come with a planner, which is another, even more streamlined option.

This person, whether you hire them personally or work with them through your venue, can:

  • Scout out your venue in person, and take advantage of local contacts such as florists, photographers, caterers, makeup artists and more (they're also more likely to be able to secure preferred rates).
  • Give you necessary and accurate information on local customs and laws.
  • Do all the contractual business and make all the requisite phone calls or send e-mails to vendors (again, ideal if you're in a different time zone or dealing with a language barrier).
  • Organize hotel room blocks for guests — but more on that below
  • Provide you and your guests with crucial tips for navigating local transportation

With the help of your planner, the next step is to reserve your venue and date. In a foreign country, it's often easiest to hold the wedding at a resort or hotel where guests can also stay onsite.

If the venue comes with a wedding planner, it probably also has a built-in wedding package. In Spain, by way of example, wedding venues are typically available for a flat fee including the rental, catering and flowers, and you'll add extras like the DJ or photographer directly through the venue.

Although you won't have as much choice in the matter, when organizing from afar, it will simplify the process. Be sure to ask the venue if the property works exclusively with certain vendors in case you plan to bring or hire your own photographer or videographer.

Step 4: Maximize your expenses

If you're hoping to maximize points and miles for a wedding, you may want to have a hotel wedding with a brand that rewards event bookings.

Starwood allows couples to earn SPG points for hosting their wedding at a hotel in North or Latin America, Mexico or Canada. The points are awarded once you sign the contract, so you can easily use them for your honeymoon. Couples can earn 1 point per dollar spent on room rentals and food and beverage costs — up to 100,000 SPG points. You may also receive perks like a complimentary guest room on your wedding night and a sparkling toast during the reception.

And Hilton allows you to earn points for catering, room charges and event room rental for up to 100,000 Honors points — just be sure your hotel property is eligible before signing the contract.

Brands including Hilton, Wyndham, Marriott and Hyatt also offer wedding planning options and rewards. According to Marriott, couples who spend at least $16,667 can earn the maximum 50,000 rewards points (enough for a two-night stay at a Category 5 property). Hyatt-hosted weddings earn World of Hyatt members bonus points per eligible dollar spent, with base points accumulating for room reservations, dining and spa treatments. Wyndham will allow couples to earn points for 10 or more guest rooms booked for the night of your event, for use of event space and food and beverage charges.

Because all of these expenses should code on your credit card statement as hotel purchases, don't miss the opportunity to use your Chase Sapphire Reserve card. You'll get 3x points on all expenses that are categorized as travel — not a bad way to start saving for that dream honeymoon.

Check out the full TPG guide on maximizing your points, miles and credit cards for your wedding and honeymoon.

Step 5: Give guests some direction

Norma Galan, founder and director of European-based Normie Wedding Planning (who made sure my own wedding in Spain was flawless), explained that while many couples now build wedding websites, having one for a destination wedding is essential.

(Personally, I found this to be true when planning my own destination wedding. After ceaseless texts from guests months before the event about how they could attend a flamenco show, get from the airport in Madrid to the hotel or take a day trip to Toledo, I knew I needed to accept Galan's advice.)

"Destination wedding websites can include a specific program of activities you have planned for the entire trip, as well logistics for arrival and lodging, [such as] suggested plane routes, trains and hotel options or room blocks," Galan explained.

"More importantly, including details like money exchange [options], important words to know in the local language and restaurant, tour guide and shopping recommendations can help guests feel comfortable in a strange destination. I also like to add in hair and nail salons, dry cleaners, pharmacies and other local spots to the websites I create."

Beyond simply communicating wedding day details and RSVP options, a destination-focused website keeps "guests [from] constantly texting the bride and groom asking where to to get a manicure, how to order a white wine in French or if Paris has Uber."

If you use a planner, they should create the website for you, and provide their contact info there as a reference for guests.

Photo courtesy of Hyatt Ziva Puerto Vallarta.
Photo courtesy of Hyatt Ziva Puerto Vallarta.

Step 6: Help family & friends arrange travel

As you’re clearly the points, miles and travel guru, now is the time to help your friends and family get the same deals you did. If you have points and miles to spare, consider using them to book award travel for your wedding guests. You can also direct newbies to our Beginner's Guide, so they can begin accumulating points and miles to book their own flights.

Some airlines offer discounted rates for groups of 10 or more. If you'd like to go this route, start by filling out a form or calling the carrier's dedicated hotline. Requirements vary, but typically, group bookings must be made a set number of months in advance. Some even offer zone fares for those traveling from various US hubs to the same destination. Airlines that offer these services include American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest, Frontier, Etihad, JetBlue, WOW Air, Spirit and United. At Alaska Airlines, there's even an exclusive help desk specifically dedicated to group wedding travel.

Blocking hotel rooms is a way to ensure your guests have a place to stay at a lower rate. Usually, hotels will expect you to block 10 or more rooms — and the discounted rates can be up to 40% off the standard price.

There are a few types of hotel blocks to consider:

  • A courtesy room block mean you won't get charged if all the rooms you block aren't reserved. This type of block, however, usually has a cut-off, meaning if your guests don't reserve before a specific date, they won't get the discounted rate. This makes the most sense if you are blocking rooms at more than one hotel or your destination has several other hotel options.
Help your friends find a good deal. (Photo by @sassandfrassphoto via Twenty20)
Help your friends find a good deal. (Photo by @sassandfrassphoto via Twenty20)
  • A closed or guaranteed block will hold you responsible for all (or part — definitely read the fine print here) of blocked rooms that don't get reserved. Sometimes, this block requires a deposit. While this type of block can be more stressful, it may make sense if your destination has limited accommodations.

There are other things to consider when reserving hotel room blocks, too:

  • Block rooms at no more than three different hotels
  • Each property should be in a distinctly different price range, to satisfy your guests' various budgets
  • Pick hotels that are close to the venue
  • Block the rooms four to eight months in advance
  • Read the find print (seriously), especially when doing a guaranteed or closed block
  • Be aware of check-in times to make sure your guests can comfortably prepare for, and arrive at, the ceremony on schedule

When doing hotel blocks, it's also a good idea to ask the following:

  • Check in and check out times
  • If you will be charged for no-shows
  • What the discounted rate includes (breakfast being a key factor)
  • Minimum stay requirements
  • If the discounted rate include taxes and fees

If you enlist a wedding planner, he or she can likely handle this for you.

Step 7: Safely pack wedding essentials

Packing can be stressful even under the most relaxed conditions, but when it comes to traveling for a wedding, there are certain things that just can't be replaced (and that you absolutely can't forget at home). That's why it's essential to pack anything of value in your carry-on. This includes, but is not limited to, the dress, suit or tuxedo and the wedding rings.

How to Pack a Suit or Wedding Dress

If your dress is voluminous or has multiple layers, this poses a bit of a packing problem. A garment bag is the ideal choice, and brides should ask a flight attendant to hang it up. Another option is to lay the gown across the luggage in an overhead bin. Calling the airline ahead to give advance notice that you'll be traveling with a wedding (or very important) dress may help, too. (We've heard success stories of bridesmaids and guests doing this, as well as the bride). The same goes for a groom's suit.

Another option is to carefully fold or roll the dress into a vacuum-sealed bag and get it pressed upon arrival. (I successfully did this when traveling with my wedding dress from Arizona, via Dallas, Miami and finally to Madrid.)

You can also ask the dress shop to fold the garment into a bag, which you can place inside your carry-on. Just be sure to leave plenty of space between layers (the air helps prevent wrinkles). Packing the gown in a dress box is another safe option.

Whatever you do, strongly reconsider plans to check your wedding day outfits (we know the discouraging stats on lost baggage).

Travelers should also call or e-mail dry cleaners in the destination for pricing and information on pressing beforehand, in case you arrive and the dress or suit hasn't traveled well.

(Photo by @luxandterraphotography via Twenty20)
Make sure your dress gets to the destination safely. (Photo by @luxandterraphotography via Twenty20)

How to Travel With Rings

The first step for traveling with an expensive engagement or wedding ring is to get it insured, meaning if it's lost or stolen during travel, you have options.

Before traveling:

For your weddings rings, it's best to keep them inside protective boxes, secured in your carry-on, during travel. If you're buying them in the US ahead of time, it usually isn't necessary — but you can declare your items before leaving with Customs and Border Protection, which includes filling out a form, showing proof of purchase or insurance and taking a photo of yourself with the jewelry before leaving.

Upon arrival in your destination:

Read customs declaration rules for your destination carefully, as you may have to declare jewelry when you arrive. The rules are unique to each country, and it's best to do research beforehand so you can be prepared.

When re-entering the US:

If your rings were purchased abroad, make sure to declare them upon re-entering the United States — and save your receipts. If you registered your jewelry with CBP before leaving the country, make sure to mention that when returning. But in most cases, you won't have to pay taxes on them.

Did you have a destination wedding, or have you attended one? If so, share your tips below in the comments section.

Featured image by Photo by @garickvanstaden via Twenty20