7 Tips on Destination Weddings

Saying "I do" in an exotic locale can be a romantic and inexpensive way to tie the knot -- if you do it right.

Newlyweds Leslie and Val Felipe grew up in San Francisco, and they still live there. But they were married on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.

"We looked at places here in the Bay area, but I wanted to keep (the wedding) a little bit smaller, and I just wanted something different," Leslie says. So this past spring, the couple exchanged vows at the romantic spot where he proposed. The cost? Around $20,000 -- roughly what they would have spent in San Francisco, says the new bride, 29 years old.

By having the wedding in Hawaii, the couple's 80 guests were treated to a more lavish affair. "I felt like we were able to give a bit more, since (the wedding) was smaller," Leslie explains. "If we had it here and we invited a lot more people, we would have had to skimp on certain things." For example, the couple provided an open bar at the reception -- something that would have been prohibitively expensive if they'd had a larger wedding in San Francisco.

The Felipes certainly aren't alone in foregoing a hometown bash. "It's a trend that has been growing for the past 15 years or so, and probably will get bigger," says Jerry Monaghan, president of the Association of Bridal Consultants. These days, between 5% and 7% of all weddings take place in exotic locales -- be it a Caribbean island, Disney World or California's Napa Valley, says Monaghan.

For many couples, the major appeal of destination weddings is financial. While the average wedding costs roughly $20,000, and double that in a big city, according to the wedding-planning Web site The Knot, destination weddings can be significantly cheaper, since the guest list is often considerably smaller. The theory goes that only those who really love you will travel for you -- which means a destination wedding is one way to avoid paying $75 a head to feed the coworkers and business contacts many couples feel obligated to invite to local weddings. Destination weddings also make a lot of sense for couples whose families and friends are scattered around the country (or even the globe). After all, if most of the guests are going to travel anyway, why not get married in a place that's a vacation for all?

No matter your reasons for choosing a destination wedding, one thing's for sure: This time, you can't rely solely on your mom for advice, since she probably didn't get married this way. Here are some of the special considerations involved in planning a wedding far from home.

1. Claim Your Discount
Bringing 80 guests to Aruba? Don't forget to ask the hotel for discounts -- for you and your guests. "Remember, the resort is very interested in having your guests' business, so they shouldn't be charging you the absolute full price of the event," says Carley Roney, The Knot's editor in chief.

Many destination spots now offer wedding packages -- and business is booming for some. Sandals Resorts, for example, has seen a big uptick in its wedding business. Last year, 11,672 couples tied the knot at its properties -- an increase of 18% over the previous year. That's not so surprising given the generous wedding packages it offers. In fact, people planning a tiny wedding of four can even get married for free, provided they book a five-night honeymoon at the resort. The package includes a Caribbean wedding cake, champagne, the bride's bouquet, the groom's boutonnière, a set of Wedgwood china or Waterford Marquis crystal and a pair of "just married" T-shirts.

Regardless of the size of your wedding, however, you should be sure to negotiate with vendors. If there are certain items included in a wedding package that you don't want, ask for a credit. And if a property won't drop its rates substantially, look for free upgrades for you and your guests instead. For example, at their hotel in Oahu, the Felipes got a free night and an upgrade from a regular room to the hotel's best suite.

2. Be Kind to Your Guests
"If you want to do a destination wedding, you have to make it affordable for the people who are coming," says JoAnn Gregoli, a New York-based wedding planner who specializes in destination weddings. So, lovely though it may be, don't pick a location that will cost a few thousand dollars for the weekend.

In addition to negotiating cheaper room rates on behalf of your guests, try to cut airline costs as well. For example, if you're inviting 10 or more, American Airlines will offer a 5% discount off published rates, and an additional 5% off if guests buy their tickets at least 30 days in advance. (You can submit a request for a group wedding discount online, or call American's wedding-services desk at 800-545-8193.)

You also can save your guests money by telling them that their presence at your wedding is the only wedding gift you need, says TheKnot's Roney. If you're not willing to give up the registry completely, be sure to register for some inexpensive items.

3. Fair Warning
With a destination wedding, save-the-date cards are crucial. Send them off as early as possible, preferably at least eight months in advance, says Roney. "Remember, this is a destination wedding, and your guests may be planning their family vacation around it," she says. Giving them a heads-up allows them to shop for the best airfares and work the trip into the family budget.

4. Know the Legalities
If you're going international, be aware of the legal requirements, says Roney. Many places have marriage fees and residency requirements in addition to a slew of other red tape. England, for example, has a seven-day residency requirement. And tying the knot in Venice, Italy, requires a four-day residency -- plus you'll need certain documents translated into Italian with special seals from the secretary of state where the documents originate. Other countries, like Mexico, require you to take local chest X-rays and blood tests.

5. The Wedding Planners
Given the added complications of destination weddings, a good wedding planner can be a godsend. After all, you might have to communicate in a foreign language and deal with people who live in a foreign culture. The best favor you can do yourself is to hire an onsite wedding planner.

The easiest way to do it: Hire a wedding planner in your area who specializes in destination weddings, and let him or her work with an onsite planner. "It's sort of like going to a doctor," says the Association of Bridal Consultants' Monaghan. "He can take all the information, all the history, all the symptoms and then call a specialist." And don't worry about having to pay two fees, says wedding planner Gregoli. The services of the local wedding planner are generally included in the overall price.

How much do wedding planners charge? Whether it's a flat fee, a per-hour fee or a combination of the two, prices vary by region. Generally speaking, the total fees account for roughly 10% to 15% of the cost of the wedding, Monaghan says. But remember: A good wedding planner can help keep other costs in check. He or she should be in a position to bargain with vendors, who are always looking to curry favor with high-volume professionals.

To find a good planner, start by asking friends and relatives for referrals. You can also check with a reputable wedding association, such as the Association of Bridal Consultants or the Association for Wedding Professionals International for destination wedding planners in your area. TheKnot.com also has a helpful database of wedding Web sites organized by region, each with a list of wedding coordinators in the area.

6. Don't Stress Out
Wedding planners say destination weddings are less stressful than traditional hometown hooplas, since many of the details are simply out of the couple's control. "It's the level of trust that matters," says Gregoli.

Attention, A-types: If you're planning an island wedding, set your watch to island time and your mind to island mentality. Vendors there are likely to be slower to respond to requests than mainland vendors might be, Gregoli warns. "Just be aware things could be delayed, and don't stress."

That said, if there's an element that's really important to you -- say, the band or the photographer -- you could always bring your own. For a wedding Gregoli recently organized in St. Thomas, the couple flew in a band from New York, and the extra cost didn't throw the couple over budget. "The food was cheaper (than it would have been in New York), so it all balanced out," she says. They put the band (six people in all) in an affordable motel, and since the band agreed to a lower fee than they normally charge in New York, the total cost was less than $6,000 -- the New York average, Gregoli says.

7. Visit at Least Once
For a bigger wedding, at least one previsit is necessary, says Roney. So, alas, in the name of research, you just might have to take an extra trip to paradise with your honey. Tough work, but nobody said planning the perfect wedding would be easy.