Destination Weddings

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We all know that it's impossible to put a price tag on love, but many are trying. With 2.5 million weddings in the US alone last year, the domestic wedding industry raked in and astounding $120 billion--a number that includes everthing from flowers to tuxedos to furniture for the couple's new home. Are weddings big business? You bet. "The average affair costs $22,000," says Gerard J. Monaghan, president of the Connecticut-based Association of Bridal Consultants, an organization that claims 3,500 members in 26 countries.

And that price does not include what the guests pay to attend. At the average wedding, 40 percent of the guests fly in to attend the ceremony. They usually also shell out for hotel rooms and car rentals.

With this in mind, a number of couples are turning to destination weddings or "weddingmoons". "The idea of the destination wedding is a movement that's grown up out of the disintegration of the family nucleus with family members scattered all over, and not necessarily living the same town. First came wedding weekends, and now we have destination weddings--a concept that really started to take root 15 years ago," says Monaghan.

The cost of a weddingmoon can be much lower for the happy couple--starting at $2,500 for a three-day weekend, including airport transfers, accommodations, food, drink and everything you'd need for the ceremony and reception. Guests pay an average of $900 for their accommodations, transfers and non-wedding food.

Location, location, location

For those who can avoid familial pressure, the decision where to have your wedding will be personal, and likely one shaped by cost. It's sometimes but not always the case that the farther you go, the more you'll spend. In recent years, the number of resorts and hotels offering one-stop wedding shopping in such popular easy-to-get-to tropical destinations--Bahamas, Bermuda, Caribbean islands, and Mexico--has grown exponentially. (We'll get to some in just a moment.)

"We decided to do a destination wedding for a lot of reasons," says Kim Frye, a resident of Atlanta who married her husband Tom in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico a few years ago. "We figured that guests would spend just as much to visit and stay in New York (they lived there at the time) as they would in Mexico. While it was the cost that got us started on the idea, what meant the most to us in the end was that instead of just the four to five hours spent at a normal wedding, our good friends and families really got to know each other, and most stayed for five days."

If you decide a destination wedding is for you, then be prepared to apply the flexibility you've acquired in yoga class to planning your wedding; it won't always be possible--or affordable--to fly to your wedding reception site every time you need to make a decision, i.e. you might have to let someone else figure out the flatware or leave the seating assignments to email. Those experienced in destination weddings say micro-managers bent on control should definitely think twice before embarking on the long-distant odyssey of planning a wedding from hundreds, or thousands, of miles away.

Frye adds, "Destination weddings are probably not for those people who've planned their wedding in their minds for years, and they're certainly not for control freaks. I liked the idea of doing something different, and I loved the idea of not having to interview a hundred florists. Our wedding wasn't free but we were able to negotiate a great rate at La Jolla de Mismaloya. We even had a huge mariachi band for the event."

Rules, regulations and hurricanes

Just a few of the important questions to ask before you decide where to have your destination wedding are: When is the best time of year to visit? Is there a hurricane season? Are there enough activities for family and friends to enjoy between planned events? Can you choose from wedding packages or is everything ala carte? And, is there an on-site wedding coordinator to help you with your long-distance arrangements? Wherever you decide to have your destination wedding, it's imperative that you get everything in writing and have agreements for catering, cake and flowers to refer to should problems arise.

For ideas on where to plan your weddingmoon, check out the book The Most Romantic Resorts for Destination Weddings, Marriage Renewals & Honeymoonsby Paulette Cooper and Paul Noble. There are also travel companies that specialize in destination weddings--The Wedding Experience/305-421-1260 and Weddings on the Move are two prominent ones--that will not only help you make the most of your budget, but work with you to find the best possible locale. Additionally, these agencies tend to be knowledgeable about local marriage laws, a very important factor as these can vary greatly from country to country. You don't want to be caught at the altar without the proper documentation, which can run the gamut--from blood tests to residency requirements. For example, in the Bahamas there's a 24 residency requirement (easy enough to abide by), a $40 fee, and proof of arrival on the islands, among a handful of other official documents. In England there's a seven-day residency required and the fees can vary depending on region and the type of ceremony. St. Maarten tips the scales with fees reaching as high as $204 and a 10-day residency, a rule that's perhaps inspired some to take their honeymoon before going to the altar.

Denise Hinman, a wedding coordinator for The Wedding Experience, says that the Caribbean is one of the easiest parts of the world to have a destination, and discourages against weddings in Europe. "For many, a wedding in Europe will be symbolic because of the strict residency requirements--30 days in Spain, 60 days in France. Greece is one of the few European countries where it's not so complicated."

If you have questions regarding regulations we recommend contacting the consulate or tourist board of the country you'll be married in. (For a worldwide directory of tourism offices, go to: http://www.towd.com/). The Association of Bridal Consultants can also answer your questions by calling 860/355-0464, and destination wedding specialists at The Wedding Experience have an entire page devoted to marriage requirements and fees in the most popular destinations.

Guess who's coming to the wedding

Destination weddings provide the ideal excuse to limit your guest list to only the special people in your life, with many couples choosing quality over quantity when it comes to those with whom they want to share the event. This distillation process can also provide the perfect excuse for not inviting loud-mouthed Uncle Bob, but some still manage to pull-off a faraway wedding for 100.

On the flip-side, be aware that it's not always easy for elderly relatives and friends to attend a destination wedding due to the general wear and tear of travel. If it's important to you for your grandmother to be there, then you may want to talk to her about your plans. More often than not, friends and family will be happy for the invitation, and the opportunity to roll the special event into a vacation--provided they can afford it. With destination weddings, guests will have at least a few days to get to know one another before the ceremony, something that serves to unite the different circles in one's life, thereby creating a relaxed (and often highly festive) atmosphere.

The benefits of group travel

Unless you run around with true jetsetters for whom flitting to Buenos Aires for a birthday party bash is run-of-the-mill, you will want to take the cost of travel for your guests into consideration. Ways to ease the damage on their wallets include inquiring if airlines will give you a group discount and insisting, if possible, on discounted blocks of rooms. This request is not unreasonable when you consider a long wedding weekend at a resort in a foreign country can easily bring-in thousands of dollars.

Where the weddings are

Many of the Caribbean's biggest resort groups--Breezes, Couples, Superclubs, Sandals--offer "free" weddings. The couple will still pay for room and board, and there are minimum stay requirements to ensure that the husband and wife don't just have the ceremony and bolt. But in order to lure guests, these companies do throw in all of the accoutrements of the wedding itself, which can be a money-saver.

The basic packages vary from resort to resort, but most include:

 

  • Marriage license
  •  

  • Officiant
  •  

  • Flowers
  •  

  • Photo
  •  

  • Champagne and hors d'oeuvres
  •  

  • Wedding cake
  •  

  • Services of a wedding coordinator
  • The following double occupancy rates were quoted for the lowest priced all-inclusive packages (room, meals, drinks) starting the night of Jun. 24, a time of year. That's typically considered shoulder-to-high season (with autumn dates costing much, much less). Again, to be eligible for the free wedding, you must adhere to the minimum stay requirements. [Editor's note: Some resorts like to advertise the dollar value of what its "free" weddng might cost if it were paid for out of pocket. However, we suspect these sticker prices are often inflated to increase the perceived sense of value associated with the "giveaway" wedding package.] In any case, here's a sampling:

    Beaches: 888/BEACHES, Beaches Turks & Caicos; 5 night minimum; $277 per person per night; claimed value of wedding package $750-$2,000

    Couples: 800/268-7537, Couples Ochos Rios; $168 per person per night; 3 night minimum; claimed value of wedding package: $750

    Sandals: 888/SANDALS, Sandals Royal Bahamian; 5 night minimum; $266 per person per night; claimed value of wedding package $750-$2,000

    Superclubs: 877/467-8737, Grand Lido Negril; $282 per person per night; 3 night minimum; value of wedding package: $1,700; Breezes Montego Bay; $125 per person per night; 3 night minimum; claimed value of wedding package $850

    Of course, these are not your only options; some resort offer weddings at cost, sometimes offsetting the extra price with lower nightly room rates. For example, the Westin and Sheraton at Our Lucaya on Grand Bahama Island has multi-featured packages starting at $1,500 (Tropical Bliss Wedding), with its most expensive option, The Fantasy Garden Wedding going for just $2,500 additional. The wedding packages include all of the items mentioned in the list above, along with such extras as steel pan player, breakfast in bed for the newlyweds the morning after, and a press release with the marriage announcement for your home town newspaper. The pricier offer folds in full spa treatments for the bride's beautification and relaxation. Perhaps best of all, its rooms come in at around $200/night (based on availability Jun. 24-27), and it's a very easy flight from the US, with some airlines flying there nonstop. Even though this lush property is large, it's divided into separate sections so you never feel like you're on a massive "compound." There's an array of restaurants and wateringholes, including a very sniffy cigar bar, and the resort overall, is extremely well maintained and manicured. If you're interested in tying the knot at the Westin and Sheraton at Our Lucaya (877/OUR-LUCAYA), then contact Seashell Wedding Coordinators at: 242/350-5350.

    If mega-resorts are not your style, then you'll want to look into individual properties that cater to the marrying public like Hotelito (little hotel), a rather luxurious and intimate property located 60 miles south of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico's Pacific side. For $1,500 you can be married on the beach with margarita in hand. The price covers the officiant, flowers, champagne/tequila and two hours of live guitar music. For $55 per person, you can have a traditional Mexican dinner with drinks and cake. There is no minimum night stay.

    Or, perhaps you'd like to get married on a white-washed cliff-side terrace on the Greek island of Santorini? The Wedding Experience (305/421-1260) can arrange everything for you for $3,450, a price tag that includes the whole shebang, from paperwork to wedding cake to 50 photographs with negatives.

    Lastly, we'll toss out an option for the true budgeteers out there. The sweet 28-room Emerald Escape Beach Resort in Montego Bay (876/952-6133), Jamaica has a low $65/night room rate. Marriage licenses go for all of $6 (call the Ministry of National Security 876/922-0800) for a town hall wedding. Rum drinks at the hotel, which overlooks Montego Bay, start at $4, and just down the road at The Native restaurant you can order enough boonoonoonos, a sampler platter for four of traditional Jamaican specialties such as curried goat, jerk chicken and escabeche fish for $23. If that's not an affordable destination wedding, we don't know what is.

    "Sometimes, destination weddings are simple one-stop shops, but sometimes they're not," says Vanday High, a wedding coordinator who owns Great Beginnings (914/967-4005). "For example, I helped to organize a wedding on St. Kitt's where I had to fly in with the flowers and enlist the local tourist board to get permission to use some of the islands most historic sites for the reception. But the hardest thing was the transportation; we had to hire every taxi on the island to take the 178 guests around."

    "The bride was happy and it goes to show you that you can arrange a personal event from far away."

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