This year marks my ten year wedding anniversary – I can hardly believe it! Almost ten years ago, my husband and I were married at the Riu Vallarta all-inclusive resort in Neuvo Vallarta, Mexico.
Over the past 10 years, we have been asked so.many.questions. about our wedding, what it was like to have a destination wedding, what we would have done differently and what we would still do, etc.
In this post I’m going to share all of this with you plus some of my favorite wedding photos! Keep scrolling!
On my most recent episode of The Real Girl Podcast I shared what I learned from my destination wedding. I though it would be good to have it all in written form (with pictures!) for you here, too!
You can listen to #TheRealGirlPodcast HERE!
If you like the podcast, please subscribe! I’m always sharing travel tips and tricks here that you might not find on the blog!
One of the trickiest things for us is that neither of us, nor our immediate family had ever been on an all-inclusive vacation before (I know, right?). Thankfully we had plenty of friends who had been, and we even had a close friend whose brother was married at the resort next to ours (within the same brand) the year before. But aside from that, we were flying blind – basing everything on TripAdvisor reviews and whatever limited information we could find online. Don’t worry – you won’t have to do that – I’ve got everything for you here!
Enter your email address below to unlock additional FREE content! Here’s what you’ll get:
- Everything you need to know for planning your destination wedding!
- The Advantages + Disadvantages of Destination Weddings.
- All the legal details of getting married abroad – legal vs. symbolic ceremonies.
- 10 Must-Know Things For Planning a Destination Wedding.
- What to consider when setting a date + sending out invites.
- What to expect when meeting with your resort wedding planner + choosing the right wedding package.
- The importance of choosing the right resort and what factors to consider when choosing the property.
- Photographers: Use theirs or bring your own?
- Decorations, how to incorporate traditions and everything in between.
- After parties – yay or nay? Should you have one?
- The Honeymoon! How To Extend Your Trip.
- How To Be A Good Guest at a Destination Wedding!
Okay, so I think I should make a clear distinction here. When I say “destination wedding”, I mean a wedding somewhere like Mexico or the Caribbean, usually at an all-inclusive resort. That’s not to say that many of these items won’t apply to a wedding in Hawaii, Greece, India or some other exotic locale, but I’m just going from what I know from my own wedding. Let’s get started!
#1: Setting The Date
Destination weddings are events that you’re more likely to get a ‘save the date’ card for than others. A lot of times couples will give people a lot of notice or lead time so that they can save up, find childcare or just make time in their schedules for such an event.
My husband and I got engaged in February, sent out invites in April and got married that November. We gave people very little time to decide and book their trips. I have to say that we were not like most other destination wedding couples in this regard. We also didn’t invite a ton of people, so roughly 50% of invites were actually able to attend. We had 35 guests in total.
There were other couples at our resort who had given guests anywhere from 12-24 months of lead time and they had 80-100+ guests at their weddings. If that’s what you need to do in order to get the crowd you want, then you do you. For us, we wanted to get married within the year and decided that whoever could come, would come, and that was it. Plus, we wanted a smaller affair, too.
Time of Year: Consider hurricane season when booking your wedding, too. The seasons are different for the Pacific than the Caribbean, and you want the highest probability of amazing weather on your wedding day.
#2: Choosing The Resort
Choosing the right resort can be so tricky. If you want my opinion, choose something that is less than 5 years old and has a ton of photos and reviews online. You may choose to go the direction of a travel agent, but keep in mind that they may get different commission rates for different properties, so your best interests may not be their #1 choice.
Some destination couples that we met had traveled to the area the year before and went on resort tours scouting the perfect location. It’s really up to you how you want to handle choosing the resort and how much time and effort you want to spend getting it perfect.
The right resort isn’t just important for the sake of room quality, activities, amenities and food, it also matters a lot for your wedding photos as that’s where they’re all going to be taken. The resort that we got married at had stunning architecture throughout, giving us plenty of photo locations to choose from. (TIP: You can check out some of my favorite photos at the end of this post!)
Consider where on the property you’d like to be married as well – do you want to get married on the beach or in a gazebo or in some other private area? You’ll have to check to see what’s offered. Because our wedding was at 2pm, we chose the gazebo at the hotel to be married at – this allowed our guests to sit in the shade, and we were covered from the direct sunlight, too. Don’t worry – we still had a view of the beach!
#3: Legal Ceremonies vs. Symbolic Ceremonies
This is the not so fun part about weddings – the legality, the contracts, the licensing, etc. It’s important to know that not everyone who has a destination wedding gets “legally married” on their wedding day and there are a few reasons for that.
There were a few hoops that we had to jump through and a few considerations to be made for getting married in Mexico, too.
- First of all, we couldn’t get married in a church because neither of us were Catholic and all nearby churches were Catholic. Plus, we’d have to arrange for transportation to-and-from for all of our guests.
- To have a legal wedding ceremony in Mexico, we had to be in the country for 3 business days prior to the wedding taking place to secure marriage licenses and account for a few other line items.
- One of those line items being a blood test. Both my husband and I had to have blood work done in Mexico to prove that we didn’t have AIDS or Syphilis. It’s just something they make all couples do down there before issuing a marriage license. All of these costs were covered by the resort in our wedding package.
- NOTE: Don’t be weirded out about getting blood work done in a foreign land – most resorts have doctors on staff who perform these tests for you, or at least a shuttle to a nearby clinic.
Maybe a legal ceremony doesn’t matter that much to you. One friend of mine did a quick City Hall ceremony the day before they left and had a symbolic ceremony in the Dominican Republic. Another friend of mine had a symbolic ceremony in Greece but kept their relationship as common-law in Canada, because the government considered them to be married under this premise anyways.
For us, we didn’t want a separate ceremony at City Hall before we left or after we got back to legalize the deal – we wanted to do this thing one time. Our resort was able to provide us with a Justice of the Peace as well as a translator for our ceremony. This made it legally binding. A few other considerations:
- We had to submit copies of our birth certificates and copies of government issued photo ID/Passports to the resort ahead of time for them to issue a marriage license.
- We had to have 4 witnesses and we had to submit copies of their passports as well.
Something else worth noting is that Our marriage certificate was issued in Spanish, so for me to change my last name, I had to have the marriage certificate translated and certified by said translator. This didn’t cost a ton and took only a few days.
With all of this in mind, check the regulations of the country where you plan on getting married.
#4: Wedding Packages + What To Expect When
Meeting With The Wedding Planner
Different resorts offer different tiers of wedding packages for different prices. Often these packages come with à-la-cart items that you can add on if you so choose. For us, the top tier package wasn’t that expensive and it included more than we ever could have needed! Here are some of the things that our package included:
- A room upgrade (based on availability). Our room was baller!
- A massage at the hotel spa for him, and a mani-pedi for me!
- Some packages include hair styling and makeup application, too. For me, I chose to do my own makeup and my hair stylist happened to be a good friend of the family who was attending the wedding anyways.
- Speaking of that, it’s important to consider who’s going to do your hair, and if it is someone at the hotel, do a trial or two before the big day.
- A semi-private ceremony area to be roped off for our guests.
- Flowers: Bouquets, Boutonnières, Centrepieces and more.
- A private dinner at one of the hotel restaurants for our reception.
- A wedding cake (ours was delicious).
- Champagne + 1 custom cocktail per guest at the reception.
- Photographer + a few free prints (more on this later).
The beauty of these wedding packages, too, is that you can literally flip through a catalog and choose everything you want for your wedding from flowers to cake flavours and place settings in a half hour! It’s just that simple.
When you book your trip, email the resort and mention that you have a group booking and that you want to get married there. They’ll ask for the wedding date and provide you with availability for times each day and any regulations around that. Note that some resorts do multiple weddings each day, so you will have to settle on a time.
I honestly spent hours stressing over meeting with the wedding planner when we arrived because I wanted everything to be perfect. This was some serious time wasted because of the ease of choosing all of our options, all at once, and all in one place. They do this literally every day and they know what they’re doing. They all speak English and they are really good and helping you get what you want for your special day.
You can have all the music you want, you can have a rehearsal, a rehearsal dinner, you name it. They’re there to help you with anything you need to make your wedding everything you want it to be.
#5: Overall Costs: Pros + Cons
Cost is where I find some of the largest advantages of a destination wedding, from the perspective of the couple! For us, we were able to get a magical day with beautiful floral centrepieces, chairs with linen covers and coloured sashes, dinner on china, an open bar (because we were at an all-inclusive resort) and so much more, all for the simple cost of a wedding package.
To get all of the things we had at our wedding in Canada, it would have cost us exponentially more. PLUS, good luck finding a venue with less than 12 months notice.
Cost for guests is higher though. Some may argue that “hey, they’re getting a vacation out of it” but it might not be the location, resort or vacation type or timing that they would have chosen, so it’s important to be gracious here.
One of our guests made several comments about how much cheaper a cruise would have been – hot tip, bud: it would have been more expensive for all of us. We also had a guest (the same one, shocking, I know) say that single versus double occupancy rates were unfair…but we told him he could bring a plus one, which he did not, so not our problem.
TIP: Include a +1 for all single guests – and not just for the cost savings of double occupancy. They’re going to be on vacation for a week – they may as well have a travel companion.
#6: How To Include Traditional Elements Away From Home
Even though we were getting married in a tropical paradise, I still wanted traditional wedding elements like a first dance and a private reception. I say this because some couples opt to do their reception at the resort night club, which was not what we wanted to do.
I wanted a first dance with my husband to the song of our choosing, and a dance with my Dad. Resorts offer tons of options for this. For us, the cordoned off the pool bar in the evening, set up speakers and gave us a table for a DJ set-up. We could have hired a DJ there, but we pre-mixed a playlist of all the songs we wanted to hear and just hit play.
Another thing you might be wondering is “how do I get that tear-jerking slide show of photos from when we were kids if I get married elsewhere?” Most hotels host conferences and because of that, they can set up projectors and screens and all sorts of A/V that you might need. There may be an extra cost, there may not be. It all comes down to the resort you’re at.
Basically, you can have your cake and eat it, too. You can have your bouquet toss and your first dance.
If I ever give wedding couples any advice, it’s to spring for a good photographer. At the end of the day, all you’re left with are the photos and the memories, so it’s important to make this element count.
In our wedding package from the resort, we were provided a photographer and 15 free prints that were 5×7” – anything in addition to that was going to be really expensive and that didn’t include all of the photography I wanted for the day.
We opted to bring our own photographer from home. Tons of photographers are open to doing destination weddings – all you have to do is ask!
- She did the wedding for a flat fee plus her trip costs.
- Because she was there for the entire week, she was able to snap candid photos of us and our guests enjoying ourselves.
- Also, because we hired our own photographer, she was able to capture all of those modern wedding photo moments like photos of my dress, my flowers, shoes and other details as well as photos of both sides of the bridal party getting ready.
Some resorts have great photographers that they employ, but I highly recommend reading the fine print here to see what the costs are for what you’ll actually get at the end of the day.
#8: Dress Code: For Everyone
Dress code is a huge one for me. I wanted a formal, traditional wedding – not a beach party where people wore sarongs and flip flops. Because of this, we were explicit in our invitation about the dress code for our wedding ceremony and reception so that guests were not caught off guard and could pack accordingly.
I wore a traditional wedding dress and my husband wore a suit. We had traditional bridesmaids dresses and groomsman attire.
As a guest, be courteous and stick to the assigned dress code – this isn’t your day, it’s someone else’s and they don’t want you showing up to a formal event wearing beach attire. Also, there are so many dressy versions of flip flops now that you don’t have to go with the $5 foam ones from Old Navy. This should also go without saying – unless you’re explicitly told to do so, don’t wear white. It’s gauche.
TIP: Consider resort dress codes for restaurants and inform your guests accordingly.
#9: Wedding Gifts
My statements on gifts are going to be two-fold. First, when it comes to receiving wedding gifts, don’t expect large gifts from those who attended the big day. The trip itself was quite an expense, so take that into consideration.
Register! There are a ton of advantages to registering. You get what you want, people know what you want and need and in the case of ordering off the registry, guests can have a gift delivered to your door, rather than schlepping it to your wedding.
You are likely to receive more gifts in terms of gift cards and cash rather than tangible items – it’s a lot easier to bring a card inside an envelope all the way to the tropics!
TIP: It doesn’t matter where you get married, ‘Thank-You Cards’ are still a must-do! A wedding on the beach does not mean etiquette gets thrown out the window!
The second side of this is Gifts for attendants: consider splurging a little more on your attendants gifts or maybe covering some of the cost of their attire for the day. After all, they’re not only spending this money to be there on your special day, but they have the added expenses of being in your wedding party.
#10: Hosting An “After Party” Back Home
A lot of destination wedding couples host an after-party when they return from their trip for guests that either couldn’t afford the trip or couldn’t make it, but they still want to celebrate with you.
Some couples host this large reception because they had a smaller, more intimate ceremony but want to celebrate with the masses of friends and extended family that they didn’t necessarily want to invite for the big day.
For us, getting married mid-November, we opted out of having an after-party. By the time we returned from our honeymoon, it was December and Christmas parties were rolling in. We figured that waiting until after the new year seemed too long, so we just didn’t bother.
Keep in mind the feelings of your parents and in-laws when choosing to host an after party or not. They might want to show you off to their friends or want you to get gifts from all the people whose kids weddings they had to go to! It’s important to manage expectations is all I’ll say here.
Engagement Party Idea: One thing we did was have an engagement party where we invited those who would be attending the wedding. It gave everyone a chance to get acquainted before we all headed on vacation together!
BONUS: The Honeymoon
The wedding week itself was incredibly fun, but in all honesty a bit of a blur. We arrived on Saturday, met with the wedding planner for all of the logistics on Monday, got married on Wednesday and then by Saturday, everyone flew home!
There were small amounts of time that were used for wedding logistics, meeting with the planner and all that, so consider those things when booking your trip. Having an entire week to spend with your guests means you don’t have the obligation of lengthy conversations with people who travelled far and wide to be there on your actual wedding day – it means you have a whole week to chill with them.
I loved that our family and friends were able to get to know one another and have such a great time that week. It was also nice that when the whole group was there, you always had a teammate for pool volleyball or someone to go on a snorkelling excursion with.
What I’m really glad we did was stay an additional week. It didn’t cost a whole lot more because the airfare didn’t change, and then we were able to unwind and relax together in paradise before heading back to the real world.
I know of other couples that switch resorts for their second week – either to something more adventurous or more upscale for their honeymoon. Often this is because they didn’t want to impose the expense of a more expensive resort on their guests. A friend of mine got married in Greece and she and her husband spent their second week visiting other islands in the area.
My Regrets About My Destination Wedding
+ What I Would Do Differently
Of course we all look back at our weddings and think “what was I thinking about XYZ here?!” For instance, I hated my bridesmaid dresses and was never in love with the groomsmen’s suits. However, I would wear the same dress, choose the same resort and the same photographer and the same food. P.S. Our cake was super delicious and I am still in love with our photos.
Would I wear the same dress if I got married today? No, but I’m also ten years older. But these are all things that you can ponder no matter where you get married.
Guest List: I would invite fewer people – I thought I wanted a larger wedding, but in all reality, 35 guests ended up feeling like a lot for those intimate moments at the end of the day.
I would have invited fewer people to our destination wedding and then potentially had a large after party immediately upon our return or early in the new year. I know we wanted to settle into married life, but we disappointed a lot of people. I know it’s not about what everyone else wants, but I can’t say I would have hated having another party.
Local Flare: I would have hired a mariachi band. We were in Mexico after all and adding something traditional from the area would have been a nice touch.
The Extras: I probably would have cared less about all of the details and stationary because at the end of the day, none of that really matters…but I guess try telling that to a 24 year old bride! Also, I got married before Pinterest (yes, there was such a time), so every idea I had came from Martha Stewart!
I felt like there weren’t fewer things to consider with a destination wedding, as there is still a ton of planning and logistics to be considered – they’re just different plans and logistics than a home town event.
I liked not having to coordinate caterers or florists because the resort had a wedding planner who did all of that for us – and that was all included in the cost of the wedding. I know that wedding planners aren’t cheap, but having one handle all of that for us took a lot of stress off of our plates.
A Few of My Favorite Wedding Photos
So many of these photos are so artistic that we have them framed and hung throughout our home.
These were taken in the main lobby of our hotel.
Some of my favorite photos are of us getting ready…
And of course photos of the ceremony itself…
Some fun shots of the bridal party:
A Traditional Photo or Two…
I think this was the photo we sent out with our ‘thank you’ cards!
Cutting the cake…
And the reception…
She was able to capture candid snapshots of our guests drinking and dancing and having a good time, too.
We also had some photos taken before our rehearsal dinner…
The Extra Elements: Our photographer was able to capture extra details like our wedding rings in my bouquet and the table scape at our reception…even a few extras of the resort!
I hope that this post has inspired your Destination Wedding or at least given you some ideas! If you think I’ve missed something or if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Photo Credits: Martha Edwards
Love This Post?
Subscribe to get posts like this delivered to your inbox every week