Thinking of throwing a destination wedding? If you and your SO are dreaming of an intimate, exotic affair, a destination wedding may be just for you.
We have to be honest, though—this journey to the altar comes with its own unique challenges. You’ll be planning the celebration from afar, and if you’re taking your ceremony out of the country, you’ll have a new set of international regulations and laws to abide by.
Luckily, we’ve got you covered with our destination wedding checklist below, which will make planning your adventurous affair a breeze. Bookmark this page or print it at home so you can keep your checklist nearby throughout the planning process.
Pop open the bubbly and start brainstorming locations. Recently engaged? Celebrate! Then start plotting where in the world you want to host your special day. Destination weddings take longer to plan, so the sooner you can start this conversation, the better.
Create a budget that includes travel costs. Deciding on a wedding budget early will let you set realistic expectations for your destination wedding. In addition to normal wedding costs such as venue, food, and florals, you’ll also need to set money aside for travel expenses. Plan to spend at least $1,500 on travel if your wedding will be international. Learn more about how to set a wedding budget.
Consider opening up a travel rewards account. Since you’ll be booking travel for your destination wedding, it’s a good idea to open up a credit card account that will get you travel rewards such as bonus points on airfare and hotels. Keep in mind that most large hotel brands allow you to earn points on room rental, food, and beverage costs if you host your wedding at their location. These same hotel brands may also offer wedding planning options and assistance that includes a wedding planner.
Research potential destinations. Now it’s time for the fun part—researching locations for your destination wedding! Taking your wedding on the road increases travel costs, but it can also decrease overall wedding costs by trimming down your guest list. Here are a few things to consider when choosing your destination wedding location:
Once you’ve considered the look and feel of your destination wedding, hop online and start researching locations that fit the bill. Learn more about how to choose a wedding destination.
Research international marriage requirements. Once you’ve zeroed in on one or a small number of destinations, take some extra time to research the marriage license requirements. Some countries, such as France, require you to be in the country for an extended period of time before applying for a marriage license. To work around licensing issues, you can also consider getting legally married in the U.S. before you head out for your wedding.
Create a wedding-specific email address. Avoid long-distance call fees and time zone issues with your wedding vendors by making email your main point of communication. Keep everything organized with a wedding-specific email address that both you and your partner have access to. You’ll want to do this before your site visit as you’ll likely already be communicating with vendors, venues, and hotels.
Compile a rough destination wedding guest list. You’ll want to start figuring out exactly who you want to invite before you look at venues. Most venues are capped at a certain number of guests, so you won’t want to waste time during your site visit at a venue that can’t hold the number of guests you plan to invite. Remember that more people turn down destination wedding invitations than typical weddings so your guest list could potentially get slashed in half. Use this wedding guest list planner to keep track of your family and friends.
Consider hiring a local wedding planner. If you can fit a wedding planner in your budget, it’s a great idea to hire one already located in your destination wedding location. This wedding planner will have experience working with local venues and vendors and will provide insider information that you may not be able to find online.
Decide if you’re going to hire a travel agent. A travel agent can make planning and booking your travel and lodging a lot easier. They typically have extensive knowledge of popular locations and can help you stay in budget by negotiating costs with resorts. The best part? Many travel agencies are actually paid a commission from the airlines and hotels you book—so they are free for you to use.
Gather wedding inspiration for your vendors. Now is the time to hop on Pinterest and get inspired! Decide on your wedding color palette and theme, and save your favorite photos to a Pinterest board to share with your vendors. Since most of your communications with your destination vendors will be done online, having photographs and concrete examples to show them will help ensure you get exactly what you’re looking for.
Book your site visit. If possible, you and your partner should plan to scope out your wedding destination and venue in person before you commit. We recommend taking at least a three-day trip so you have time to see venues, meet with vendors, decide on lodging, and enjoy yourself. If you’ve hired a local wedding planner, they can help arrange site visits with some venues and vendors you’ve already scoped out online. If not, you’ll need to arrange these meetings before your trip.
Visit potential sites. If possible, you and your partner should plan to scope out your wedding destination and venue in person before you commit. We recommend taking a three-day trip so you have time to see venues, meet with vendors, decide on lodging, and enjoy yourself.
Try to make all your venue appointments on the same day; we recommend capping off your venue tours at three. Vet the venues ahead of time for cost, size, and reviews. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself with too many venues or waste time looking at spots that are way out of your price range.
When touring your destination wedding venues, consider:
Decide on a destination wedding venue. Once you’ve toured three venues, it’s time to make a decision. Plan to make a decision during your trip because the sooner you have your venue reserved, the sooner you can get to planning the rest of your wedding day. Deciding on a particular venue also gives you an idea of the nearby lodging sites and possible rehearsal dinner destination.
Put a deposit down—but don’t get charged international transaction fees. After you and your partner have decided on your venue and found an available date, put a deposit down ASAP. This will likely be the only way to reserve your space and dates as you work out the rest of your logistics. If you’re traveling internationally, make sure you pay your deposit with a credit card that doesn’t require foreign transaction fees.
Scope out nearby lodging. Now that you’ve decided on a venue, check out the nearby lodging while you are still in town. It’s always best to see a resort in person to get a feel for the place and how close it is to nearby amenities. Schedule an appointment with a hotel manager so you can inquire and possibly negotiate hotel block costs more easily. Decide whether an all-inclusive resort makes sense for you and your guests and if that resort should be adults-only or kid-friendly.
Book a hotel block. Since your guests will be traveling to attend, keep them top of mind during the early planning stages. Book a hotel block for them to alleviate some costs from their stay. Consider booking hotel blocks at two different hotels to add price range flexibility for guests. There are two types of hotel blocks you can reserve. We recommend courtesy blocks since they are less of a financial risk:
Consider purchasing travel insurance. As soon as the hotel block is reserved, you should consider looking into travel insurance options. Trip cancellation insurance can be a valuable resource in case there’s an unexpected cancellation. For example, if your destination is threatened by a hurricane or another significant weather event, you can cancel and your finances are protected. You can upgrade to Cancel For Any Reason (CFAR) coverage, which would protect you under any circumstances, such as having to delay or move the celebrations for personal reasons.
Tour rehearsal dinner or welcome party locations. If you have time during your three-day site visit, make a few appointments to tour spots for your rehearsal celebration. You can either choose an intimate rehearsal dinner or a more inclusive wedding welcome party. In a traditional wedding, it’s considered polite to invite out-of-town guests to the rehearsal dinner. Since everyone has traveled for your destination wedding, hosting an inclusive party where everyone is welcome would be ideal, although this is not always a cost-effective option. Some great ideas for a wedding welcome party include a happy hour, dessert, food truck rally, and beach party.
Meet with local vendors. Schedule meetings with potential vendors during your site visit, but keep these meetings short and sweet. You already have a lot to do, so skip the menu tastings and instead discuss details and pricing. Some things to keep in mind include your florist budget and wedding menu.
Book a local photographer. Unless you already have your heart set on a photographer at home, we recommend finding a photographer in your destination wedding location so you don’t have to pay for their travel and lodging. Consider scheduling an engagement photo session with a photographer during your site visit so you can get photographs in your destination wedding location. If you choose this option, make sure to carefully vet the photographer ahead of time online and on social media to make sure you like their editing style. Find out how to choose your wedding photographer.
Return home—but keep planning. You accomplished a lot during your site visit: you have a venue and wedding date, you met with vendors, found lodging, and possibly booked a photographer. Now it’s time to share these exciting details with your loved ones! Before you send out your save-the-dates and create your wedding website, carefully review all the notes you took during your site visit to make sure all of your details are firm.
Research excursions. Since your destination wedding doubles as a vacation for your guests, help them plan an itinerary by doing the research for them! Find highly reviewed restaurants and excursions for them to take advantage of during their stay. Make sure to include the best time for them to participate in activities during their stay, information on how they can reserve their spot, and links to the restaurant or activity on your wedding website. Here’s more on how to plan a wedding weekend.
Build out your wedding website with travel details. Since so many logistics go into planning a destination wedding, setting up a website earlier will help your guests better prepare for the trip. You can even include your wedding website on the save the dates, with information on the venue and hotel block. You’ll want to include your Zola wedding registry live on your wedding website so your guests can check it out a few months in advance. Find out how it works.
Send out save the dates early. As soon as your wedding website is up, mail your save the dates. Since your guests will be traveling for your wedding, the more time you give them to plan, the better. Some of your guests will likely need time to request off work and start saving in order to attend.
Rather than just including a notice of your wedding date on your save the dates, you should feature details such as location, venue, and lodging. You should also include a link to your wedding website with further details such as activities and a wedding weekend timeline. If space at your venue is limited or you’re throwing a particularly intimate affair, you can even request guests to RSVP on your save the dates to get a better idea of headcount early on.
Go shopping for a wedding outfit—and consider the climate. Now it’s time to make appointments to try on your wedding dress, gown, or suit. Be mindful of your location’s climate when choosing fabric; if you’re getting married in a humid, tropical destination, opt for something breathable.
Order you and your partner’s passports. If you’re traveling internationally for your ceremony, now is the time to check in on your passports. Do you and your partner both have one? Are they up-to-date? If not, schedule an appointment ASAP at your nearest USPS location. Save time by booking an appointment online ahead of time.
Decide on entertainment. If you haven’t already, now is a great time to book your DJ or wedding band. A DJ is generally more cost-effective, and you can pre-select the songs they play to ensure you hear music that you like. A live band can be a great way to add a local touch to your celebration, such as a steel band in Jamaica or a salsa band in Mexico. Like other vendors, entertainers’ schedules are tight and fill up fast. Still choosing between a DJ and a wedding band? Let us help you decide.
Book a hairstylist and makeup artist. Since you might be unfamiliar with salons in your destination wedding area, do research online and ask your wedding venue about popular local hairstylists and makeup artists. Check out their websites and Instagram pages to see their previous work, and when you find a company or stylist you like, go ahead and book it.
Arrange transportation for guests. If your ceremony or reception is not within walking distance to the wedding lodging, consider booking transportation to get your guests to and from your event. This is especially important if you’re taking your celebrations international, where transportation apps such as Uber and Lyft may not be readily available. You should also ask your hotel how guests can get to and from the airport. If it’s within budget, consider picking up the tab for your guests’ transportation to and from the airport. You can speak with your hotel about arranging an airport shuttle if one is not provided already.
Send out your wedding invitations early—and include dress code. Traditional wedding invitation etiquette advises you to ship your destination wedding invites 12 weeks out. For a destination wedding, you can send these out even earlier. Zola’s invites and paper shop has tons of designs for you to choose from. You can also discover more wedding invitation etiquette.
Make sure to include a dress code on your invitation, especially if you’re hosting a casual resort celebration or a ceremony or reception in the sand. You should also include details on your wedding website so guests can easily access this feature if they haven’t already.
Purchase destination-specific items for welcome bags. Since most, if not all, of your guests will be staying in hotel accommodations for your wedding, handing out wedding welcome bags is a great way to welcome your guests to your destination. It’s also a great way to include some destination-specific goodies such as magnets and postcards, and more practical items such as sunscreen and a map. Find out what to put in wedding welcome bags.
Count your RSVPs. By now, your wedding RSVPs should be rolling in and you can get your final headcount. Remember that destination weddings by nature have a lower attendance rate—50% attendance is expected. This amount can be even lower if your destination is hard to get to or expensive. Let any vendors who are impacted by headcount know the official final estimate so you don’t get charged extra for attendees who can no longer travel for your ceremony.
Follow up with vendors—and be prepared to wait on island time. You’ll want to check in with your vendors over email or the phone one last time to make sure everything for your wedding is set. Keep in mind that communication can vary based on your destination wedding location. If you’re getting married somewhere tropical, island time is a real thing so anticipate a few days for a response.
Reconfirm your flight booking. Plan to check in on your flights a week before your travel. Make sure your flight details haven’t changed and if they have, get in touch with your airline to see what your options are.
Check the local weather. As you get closer to your wedding day, check the weather and communicate the seven-day forecast to your wedding guests over email, especially if it’s unseasonably warm or cool. Also, remember that this forecast could change: just because it says rain on your wedding day doesn’t mean that your celebration is ruined. Use the forecast as a guide for packing rather than a wedding day guarantee.
Pack for your honeymoon. If you and your partner are heading straight to another destination post-nuptials, you’ll need to pack your honeymoon suitcase and bring it along. If your wedding destination has a major international airport, you may be able to score cheap flights you couldn’t get from home. You also have the option of extending your stay at your wedding resort for a few days and/or scheduling your honeymoon for a later date. If you do decide to leave for your honeymoon straight away, consult our ultimate honeymoon packing guide.
Arrange wedding outfit transportation. You’ll need to get your dress, gown, or suit to your destination safely. Place your outfit in a garment bag to ensure no nicks or spills can ruin it during transportation. When traveling with precious cargo on airfare, we recommend skipping the baggage check and carrying it on. Contact your airline ahead of time to see what your options are: you may be able to leave your dress with a flight attendant to hang, or you can lay your garment bag on top of suitcases in the overhead luggage compartment.
Arrive in town first. It’s polite to be the first to arrive at your destination wedding. This also allows you to finalize last-minute details in person, welcome your guests, and make sure you have plenty of time in case of travel delays.
Apply for a marriage license at your resort. If you weren’t able to obtain your marriage license ahead of your nuptials, make sure to register for it as soon as you get to the resort. Remember that different countries require different documents in order to complete this step, so make sure you’ve packed all the proper materials ahead of time.
Meet with your wedding organizer. If your venue has provided a wedding organizer, or if you booked a local wedding planner, schedule a time to do a site walk-through with them during the week, before your rehearsal. This will help calm your nerves and you’ll be able to visualize what, if anything, still needs to be done. Need some last-minute items to pull off the reception? Your wedding planner will know where you find them. Remember that remote locations may not have craft and wedding stores nearby.
Treat yourself to a massage. You’re likely in paradise, so take advantage of the amenities during the days leading up to your wedding. This will give you time to relax and focus on your wellness in between all the wedding hype.
Greet your guests as they arrive in town. Your guests have traveled far to celebrate with you, so make sure to spend time with them when you have free moments. Consider hanging out in the hotel lobby or hotel bar so you can greet guests as they arrive. Your wedding welcome bags are another great way for guests to feel excited as they check in and prepare for the celebrations ahead.
Attend your wedding rehearsal. The rehearsal is a great opportunity for your wedding party, you, and your partner to get comfortable with the ceremony venue. Since everyone is in a new place, a few walkthroughs will help get rid of any performance jitters. If your ceremony venue has a conflict the evening before, consider an early morning rehearsal.
Have a great time at your rehearsal dinner or welcome party. Whether you decided to host a traditional dinner with close family and friends or a welcome party for all of your guests who have traveled to celebrate, remember to enjoy yourself! Take time to talk to everyone and thank them for coming, just in case you don’t get a chance to visit with them during the wedding.
Get a good night’s sleep to help fight jet lag. Your nerves are high and there’s so much to do, but you still need to sleep. Be aware that your body may still be suffering from jet lag so you’ll need to take extra precautions to get a good night’s sleep. Check out these tips on how to sleep the night before your wedding.
Eat something that won’t make you sick. Even if you’re nervous and not hungry, you still need to eat. It’s essential to keep you in a good mood and keep your blood sugar and energy levels steady. But beware of what you eat—especially if you’re traveling internationally. Skip the ice and stick to bottled water. It’s also a great idea to pack energy bars from home to enjoy that day. Find out more about how to eat on your wedding day and steps to avoid food poisoning.
Thank people for traveling for your nuptials. People have traveled far and paid a lot to celebrate with you. While gratitude is always important, it’s essential at an intimate destination wedding. Plan to dedicate a portion of your night to thanking everyone, and mention specifics such as “thank you for taking a day off work to be here” when you speak with them.
Write memories down in a souvenir journal. After your ceremony and reception, it’s a good idea to jot down some notes of your favorite memories from the day. Buy a journal at a local gift shop that doubles as a souvenir and a reminder of the special day and place where you made it official. Your wedding day will be over in a flash, but writing things down will allow you to relive some of the moments later on.
Save and preserve your gown, dress, or suit. Just as you had to make arrangements to get your wedding outfit to your tropical destination, you’ll now have to get it home. You can preserve your wedding outfit so it retains its color, fabric, and shape. Find out how to preserve your wedding dress.
Make sure guests made it safely home. Once your wedding weekend is over, send thank you texts to your guests and ask if they’ve made it home safely. You can split up this task with a close family member or friend. This is just one more way to show guests you appreciated their attendance.
Begin writing thank you cards. After your wedding has come and gone, you will have a lot of thank you notes to write. Per wedding thank you note etiquette, plan to send all of your thank you notes within three months.
Enjoy life as newlyweds. You survived destination wedding planning. You’re married, you’ve made it home, and you sent your thank you notes. Now it’s time for happily ever after.
Keeping these destination wedding planning tips in mind, check out our free wedding planning checklist tool to keep track of your to-do’s during the wedding planning process. You can also visit Zola’s expert advice section to get more tips and tricks on how to plan the destination wedding of your dreams.