VACATION IDEAS

Psst! Wanna Elope?

Whether you're impatient to get hitched, embarking on a second marriage, or just want to get away from it all, running away to an island, resort—or the Graceland Chapel in Vegas!—can be a fun, affordable option as long as you temper your spontaneity with a little smart planning.

By Jamie Beckman, Wednesday, May 14, 2014, 6:00 PM

Just Married sign in sand
(Anna Lisovska/Dreamstime.com)

When you're engaged to be married, but buried under catering menus, to-do lists, and secret Pinterest boards featuring enough decorative twigs to build the world's largest bird's nest, forgoing a huge wedding for a combination elopement/honeymoon can look rather appealing.

Picture it: spur-of-the-moment vows in an exotic locale, the only evidence of your nuptials a lone photo of your blissful faces snapped by a local. Then? Instant honeymoon.

But it's not quite that easy. As romantic as ditching the checklists and heading for all-in-one paradise sounds, doing a little bit of planning before boarding that plane will help you avoid wedding-day disasters that can occur even when you and your true love are the only attendees. Plus, we found the latest information on six trendy budget getaways that you might want to consider for your own last-minute ceremony.

Investigate the process for a marriage license.

Before you even commit to the location for your elopement/honeymoon, talk to the convention and visitors bureau to research the hoops you have to jump through to obtain a marriage license there. Some locales, though popular, have restrictions like waiting periods or witness minimums that could hamper your ideal ceremony. For example: "In St. Lucia, they have very strict rules," says Shawn Rabideau, founder of Shawn Rabideau Events & Design in New York City. "You've got to send all the paperwork in, and the resort sort of helps you with that—they bring it down to the local city office—but you really need to follow the rules. Otherwise you could find out—and this has happened—people have found out they weren't even legally married."

Some documents that might be required are birth certificates, passports, divorce decrees (if applicable), a certified copy of the death certificate for a widow or widower, and so on. Applications for a marriage license also might need to be filed before you get there—if only to avoid extra fees. An additional precaution to take when marrying abroad is to check travel.state.gov, which lists information such as whether same-sex marriage is illegal. Depending on the restrictions, it might make sense to do a private ceremony in the states and a symbolic one abroad, says Rabideau.

Think logistically.

Will your elopement include just you and your partner? Or are you bringing a few friends? Posing simple questions like those can uncover potential organization problems: "How easy is the location to get to?" Rabideau says. "For example, some of the resorts or the islands in the Caribbean only have flights certain times a day and certain days of the week. Is Grandma going to be traveling for 12 hours? That might not be the best thing for Grandma. Are you going to be like, 'Oh, we can just Skype with her, that's great?' Technology doesn't always work."

If, upon further research, your dream location might be a travel nightmare or not as quick-and-dirty as you had envisioned, stay stateside to cut down on surprises.

While you're planning, go over the emotional fallout too: "Before you make the decision to elope, consider for just a moment and make sure that it's not going to be something you regret," says Jamie Chang, of Mango Muse Events in San Francisco, who specializes in destination weddings. "Not the getting-married part, but the not-having-anyone-there part. Will you be sad if your Mom isn't there? You don't want to look back and wish you'd done it differently."

Lean on the hotel or resort for assistance, but ask questions.

Most hotels and resorts have experience organizing weddings for out-of-towners, so it's smart to listen to their advice, even if you want a unique DIY wedding with hand-picked caterer, officiant, music, and décor. "They're going to have a list of vendors that they use and rely on," Rabideau says. "That usually is the best way to go. If they're recommending them, they don't want them to fail. It's their reputation."

That said, ensure you get the experience you want at the price you want, even when choosing a pre-existing package. "See what the resorts have to offer," Rabideau says. "Do they have an onsite planner that can help you? Very often the onsite planners are more like assistants, so they're juggling 10 or 20 other clients... Are there any hidden fees? Do they do more than one wedding on the day? If they do, is it next to you? Is it like a factory? If you want to feel special, it starts to take that specialness out of it."

Brace yourself for a different pace.

The sense of urgency we have in the U.S. doesn't apply to some foreign vendors, hotels, and officiants who operate at a throttled-back clip. "Understand if you're doing it in a different country, there's a different way of living," Rabideau says. "Spain [for example] is very different—they're more relaxed there; it's a different culture. They may not necessarily work at the same speed you work at. Not only pack your clothes, but pack your patience."

Include a few traditional touches.

Even if your wedding is intended to be tiny, spur of the moment, hipster-quirky, or out-of-the-box crazy, you can still hire either a local wedding planner to ensure your ceremony hits all of the marks, or one or two local vendors, depending on your priorities. "While eloping does mean having a wedding with just the couple, I think it's important for every couple to consider hiring a photographer," Chang says. "Even if you only hire them for an hour, it's nice to have a memento of the occasion and of the emotion and the love you felt."

Also, this might go without saying, but don't ship your suit or dress or check it in your luggage. "Carry it on the plane with you," she says. "The flight attendants are usually really helpful with wedding dresses and finding a safe place for them."

If you're feeling generous, bring the experience back for your friends.

Once you're home safe, you can keep the party going by including friends and family who weren't there for the ceremony.

"The most successful elopements I have seen also include some type of sharing with the family back home, whether that's posting photos on your favorite social network or hosting a 'toast the newlyweds' reception when you get back home," says wedding planner Karen Bussen, of Simple Stunning Weddings, who has recently partnered with Palladium Hotels and Resorts in Montego Bay, Jamaica; Riviera Maya, Mexico; and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. "That's a great place to show your wedding video and let all the folks who love you share in your happiness."

Hot destinations for eloping:

Costa Rica

The authenticity of Costa Rica, with its off-the-beaten-path feel, appeals to millennials, who have been flocking to the country to get married. "Central America is not their parents' tropics," says Susan Breslow Sardone, of About.com's Guide to Honeymoons/Romantic Getaways. "Green" weddings in particular are in style, says Christina Baez, a spokesperson for Costa Rica's tourism board. Especially in vogue: couples offsetting their carbon footprint with donations to reforestation projects, planting an honorary tree during the ceremony, and doing a post-wedding "trash the dress" photo shoot by jumping into one of the country's waterfalls, like those in the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano area.

Savannah, Georgia

Enduring, idyllic, and accessible, Savannah is a popular go-to wedding destination for couples who want their choice of restaurants and B&Bs but don't have the budget for long-haul air tickets, Rabideau says. Downtown's Forsyth Park, one of the biggest in the area, is a hotspot for small weddings.

Negril, Jamaica

The island of One Love offers laid-back weddings to couples who want to take the plunge, literally and figuratively. At Rick's Café in Negril, couples can say their vows and immediately leap from a 35-foot-tall platform into Caribbean waters. Afterward, relax with a rum-and-fruit-juice Planter's Punch while gazing at the area's famous purple sunsets.

Las Vegas

Getting hitched by a singing Elvis impersonator at Graceland Wedding Chapel in Vegas is always an option (they even can stream it over the internet for family and friends!), but so is exchanging rings at beautiful indoor or outdoor hotel chapels at the Wynn Encore, the Bellagio, or Caesar's Palace. Or go mobile with services like the Las Vegas Wedding Wagon, which brings the wedding to you. Another bonus: With only a photo ID, you can obtain a marriage license and get hitched in 24 hours; the Las Vegas Marriage Bureau is open every day from 8 a.m. to midnight.

Sedona, Arizona

Escaping south to a warm resort in the States is a popular trend for elopers on a budget, Rabideau says. Red-rock views and indulgent spas are two quintessential Sedona musts. The Hilton Sedona Resort & Spa offers a 90-minute "three-part recharging massage" designed for hikers and bikers who want to get back on the trail the next day; the Sedona Rouge Hotel & Spa's concierge can arrange a hot-air balloon ride with a champagne toast high above the mesas.

Marrakech, Morocco

Stay in a traditional Moroccan "riad," a house with an interior garden, in the historic Medina district, recommends Ingrid Asoni, founder of Asoni Haus event planning in Marrakech. "You still have the tranquility of a romantic getaway, but you also have some incredible views over the whole of Marrakech and the Medina," she says. Riad Noga, La Sultana, and Riad Enja are a few good picks. And don't skip the traditional pre-wedding couples' "hammam," a treatment involving a scrub, a clay or soap wrap, and another scrub—so you're radiant for your lover and ready as you'll ever be for pledging your eternal love.

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