An expert's guide to planning a destination wedding

The scene is set. During your recent trip to your favourite place with your future spouse, you woke up to the shining sun, looked out at the misty mountains, breathed in the subtle fumes of your coffee and thought “I could get married here”. You get excited about the prospect of celebrating your wedding in this beautiful country before reality suddenly sets in. How on earth are you going to do that?!

Olivia De Santos stands in front of a white-washed building with a rose plant curving up the wall.
Queen of destination weddings, Olivia De Santos, will help you craft the celebration you've always dreamt of © Marni V Photography

I hear you. After 4 years of working as a wedding planner and coordinator in the UK, I embarked on the mammoth task of planning destination weddings in Portugal. It wasn’t easy to navigate a foreign market with a non-traditional, colourful style and strong opinions. But, lo and behold, I learnt the ways and now work with clients in 5 different time zones to make their dream wedding in Portugal come to life. Destination wedding planning needn’t be a scary thing, so here are my do’s and don’ts to get you started.

A bride and groom stand on a terrace with their backs to camera, gazing out over the sun setting on the sea.
Pick a destination with an emotional punch to make the most of your wedding © Lourenço Photography

1. Do choose a location that means something to you

You would be surprised at how the perceived sexiness of a country predictably transforms it into a honeypot for weddings. Sure, it’s nice to get married in a location everyone is talking about and I’ve been happily riding the wave of Portugal’s newfound appeal in the last couple of years;  but wedding planning is so personal that choosing a location with a personal connection is key. Whether that is due to family ties, a first holiday, or even an idyllic spot you’ve always wanted to visit, that emotional connection will make your nuptials unforgettable.

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2. Don’t decide to get married abroad to save money

The amount of misinformation out there about the cost of destination weddings baffles me. Favourable exchange rates and smaller-scale vendors may give you slightly more bang for your buck but transport, accommodation, transfer fees and pre/post events all add up. Not to mention guests that are keen to explore the area as part of the celebration. These additional expenses might mean you break even, but could easily push you over the cost of a wedding at home.

The right mindset and research are a crucial part of destination wedding planning – don’t assume it’s cheaper. As a rule of thumb, start with 100 pound/dollars/euros (whatever the local currency is) per person to cover your venue, food and drinks costs only. You can build up the rest of your budget from there.

A group of wedding guests are standing together outside under a decorated gazebo.
Put your friends and family at the heart of your wedding planning © The Quiet Wolf Photography

3. Do put your guests first

This is the driving principle of all wedding planning: your guests will be spending a lot of time and money to attend your wedding and the guest experience needs to be a priority. This doesn’t mean compromising on your dreams (unless that includes a 4-hour cocktail hour in the baking sun, one canapé per person and a clown singing the Barbie Girl song for the duration of the day).

Think of how you’d approach it as a guest: transport links, shade and seating areas in hot locations, affordable accommodation, etc. Lots of kids on your guestlist? A babysitter or entertainer on-site to keep them happy throughout the day would make happy parents. It’s often the smallest of details that make your guests feel really appreciated and looked after. Your aim, after all, is to have a great time with your guests, not in spite of them!

A couple walk arm-in-arm down a hill in the countryside with sunlit fields stretching out in front of them.
A little bit of effort means your guests won't get lost trying to find the venue © The Quiet Wolf Photography

4. Don’t keep your guests guessing

One of the top pitfalls I see: an absence of comms to guests. It goes way beyond a Save the Date note and invitations. You need welcome guides, wedding websites and email updates. Being a guest to a wedding overseas without a detailed website is like navigating the London underground blindfolded and drunk. They could probably get to your destination, but they’ll be flustered, irritated and confused. Not a great start to the trip of a lifetime.

Go overboard! Beyond the basics of your wedding (where, when, timings, menu choices), let people know how to get the best out of their time in the country. Have a detailed FAQs section all about transportation, activities, local language phrases and practical health care tips. Look into local accommodation options at different price points and provide links to them. The more information you give, the better experience your guests will have.

A couple sit in a frescoed corridor on their wedding day.
Having a wedding planner to take care of the details means you can focus on your loved one rather than spreadsheets © Lourenço Photography

5. Do hire a wedding planner (but only if you want one)

Surprisingly, I don't think you 100% need a wedding planner to plan a destination wedding. Many couples delight in taking on the challenge and have a great time in the process. If you are a born organiser, researcher and project manager, you are going to loooove it. That said, if you’re far more interested in planning the ultimate honeymoon adventure than scrolling through multiple translated Google pages for catering companies, a planner can help take the wedmin off your plate.

As professionals, we can manage your budget, find your ideal venue, source suppliers, negotiate rates and generally keep your head from exploding if planning is not your bag. Overall my advice is to take things step by step. Wedding planning can feel like a Sisyphean task of endless spreadsheets, emails and negotiations.

If you break it down into sizeable chunks and abide by these principles, I promise you, it won’t be so difficult. Give yourself plenty of time, follow the steps and you’ll be well on your way to the destination wedding of your dreams!

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Read more: Need more help planning the ultimate destination wedding? We've got you covered with more tips on how to have your wedding abroad and a guide to the best overwater villas for your honeymoon.

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