How to plan an off-the-beaten-path destination wedding
As a newly engaged couple planning a wedding, the sheer amount of choices you're faced with can be staggering. But if you have your heart set on a destination wedding, you have a few more variables to consider.
Even before my husband and I were engaged, we knew we wanted a destination wedding. As two people who bonded over a mutual love of travel, we could think of no better way to celebrate our marriage than to do it in another country. Plus, we live in Dallas, but many of our friends and family live elsewhere. People were going to have to travel somewhere, so we'd might as well give them a destination they would really get excited about.
We just didn't know where. And we didn't know how we'd pull it off.
There were 2 decisions we made early on that changed the whole course of our wedding, and made it the intimate, fun and unique celebration it was. Follow this advice, and the rest of the pieces will fall into line.
1. Choose your destination very carefully.
When we first started researching destinations, we decided to narrow our search down to places we could fly in an afternoon. We didn't want anyone to have to fly 8+ hours, or across the Atlantic for our wedding (much as I would have loved a European wedding). We wanted it to be doable for a long weekend. And we both love Latin America, so we zeroed in on Central America.
I quickly became fixated on San Juan del Sur, a cute coastal surfing town in Nicaragua. We could get married on the beach and stay in a huge house in the jungle! There are monkeys and lizards everywhere! But the more I looked into it, the more this idea seemed impossible. Nevermind the remote location of this house I'd fallen in love with (a 30 minute drive to town), or the lack of nearby hotels. Just to even get there, our guests would have to fly into Managua and then get into a transport van for another 3 hours along bumpy, worn roads. No thanks.
My husband and I knew we were planning a party for other people, not necessarily for us - though we'd be damned if we weren't going to put our stamp on it, of course.
Eventually, we added Cartagena, Colombia to the list. We'd traveled there together in 2011 (our first international trip together) and fallen in love with the colorful, colonial architecture, salsa music spilling out of every doorway, and historic ambience. I didn't consider it initially, because it didn't match my vision of a beach wedding. Plus, we'd already been there, so it didn't scratch my itch for novelty.
It turns out, my familiarity with the city was a bonus. I knew what to expect, I could picture it, and that made planning a wedding from afar so much easier.
Remember, off-the-beaten-path is relative. If you plan to have even twenty to thirty people at your wedding, and if you're hoping for any of your more elderly relatives to be there, you must carefully weigh your desire for novelty with their comfort when choosing a destination.
And their comfort is not just about distance or flight length. It's about how close your venue is to the airport, and whether there's enough tourism infrastructure to support them once they arrive. Things like a good variety of hotel options, medical care nearby, even grocery stores. The quality of the roads, and the availability of taxis.
Cartagena was a clear winner here for that reason alone. The Cartagena airport is only a 10 minute taxi ride from town, and flights are only 2 and a half hours from Ft. Lauderdale. Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage site; they're used to tourism, even if they don't get that much of it from the US yet. Easy.
If you want more than just a handful of witnesses at your wedding, you may not be able to get a super exotic, remote wedding only the truly adventurous would sign up for. It may not make sense to choose that under-the-radar destination that is (so far) undiscovered by tourists, especially if you don't speak the language fluently.
So, compromise is key. Strike a balance between someplace special and unique, and accessible and comfortable. Try to see your destination from your guests' eyes, and go somewhere that would be exciting to them but also has just enough tourism infrastructure to make life easier.
In the end, our choice of Cartagena was both accommodating and subversive. We knew there's no way many of our guests would have traveled to Colombia on their own. We knew how safe it was, and how much fun they'd have. Those who joined us (35 in all) had an amazing time that they still rave about years later.
And it was way better than a beach wedding.
2. Hire a local wedding planner.
Growing up, imagining my own wedding, I never thought it would include a wedding planner. The whole affair is expensive enough as it is, and I happen to be very organized and good at planning events! I just sort of always assumed I would do it. All of it.
This, of course, was completely incompatible with my dream of a destination wedding. How in the hell could I possibly have planned a wedding in another country, one in which I don't speak the language well enough to identify and then negotiate with vendors? I knew I'd need some help, so I began Googling and reaching out to wedding planners in Cartagena.
In the end, the cost was far lower than I'd imagined, and completely worth it. Were there still little things for me to stress about? Sure. It's a wedding, that's unavoidable. But I didn't have to worry about the wedding itself - they took care of the details. And I think they did a pretty decent job:
If you're planning a destination wedding and have any notion in your head that you won't need a wedding planner, get over that immediately. You will need the support of someone who does this for a living, and that's even more true when you're getting married in another country, no matter how low-key you want the affair to be. Plan ahead for this, include it in your budget, and then relax a little.
And if cost is a concern, know that a wedding planner can help you keep your budget in check, too. You may also want to consider countries with weaker economies and currency than your own. While planning our wedding, the Colombian peso steadily declined, which made the wedding increasingly affordable. When else is that ever the case with weddings?
I love that, in the end, we got the most interesting, memorable wedding we could have imagined, yet we spent far less on it than the average America. The experience was so much more special as a result of the location, and the support we got in planning it. It's a win-win.