destination wedding etiquette
May 31, 2007 10:39 AM   Subscribe

We want to hold a destination wedding in Central America. How do we go about this without hurting feelings? How do we go about this at all?

After five years of dating, he proposed at last:)

We're big travelers, and we're dead set on holding a destination wedding in Central America -- either Ambergris Caye, Belize, or Roatan, Honduras -- since we both feel white sand beaches and lobster barbecues trump centerpieces and cash bars any day.

However, destination wedding etiquette is obviously different from regular wedding etiquette. I've read we're only responsible to pay for the ceremony, the reception, and maybe a couple activities like snorkeling, while airfare and accommodations are up to the guests. Is this true? What about the wedding party (if we have one)? What about close family? What is standard?

We're aware far fewer people will be able to go, so we’re allowing plenty of time for people to save. (How much time is sufficient?) But what about friends who want to come but can’t afford it? We’ll probably throw a casual reception back home, but we know it’s not the same. What do we do about his 90-year-old conservative grandma? How do I deal with other conservative, even slightly xenophobic family members?

When it comes to the planning, should I just call an on-island resort and trust them to coordinate everything? I’m not a resort traveler myself, but I don’t know any alternatives. Plus, it would be nice for the conservatives.

I’d also like to hear about any destination weddings you’ve been to, or been through (especially in Central America). Thank you!
posted by changeling to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Before you do this, you absolutely have to read this. If nothing else, you will laugh hysterically and know what not to do in your Central American wedding, though they went mountains rather than beach. Note that the links are live and hilarious.
posted by The Bellman at 10:55 AM on May 31, 2007

I was in a destination wedding in Jamaica, and it remains one of my favorite wedding experiences. Everyone who went paid their own way, including parents and one grandparent. It was great - a simple ceremony early on in the trip, and then we all got back in the pool and celebrated at the swim-up bar.

It was understood that our presence at the wedding was a gift of its own, so the newlyweds didn't get a big wedding present from us (although we did get them something smaller to mark the occasion).

I've been on the other side of the fence, too - I've attended a number of parties that have been thrown after people got back from their exotic weddings, and I've never really noticed a difference, except that I was often in a better mood since I hadn't had to sit through a big churchy ceremony in order to get to the fun part of the day.

I would suggest that sticking to a resort would probably be more comfortable for some of your guests. But consider taking the next week in the country, off-resort, with just your husband as a proper honeymoon.
posted by flipper at 11:00 AM on May 31, 2007

If you have good but not rich friends who would be hurt not to be able to attend, and if you can afford it, you might offer to help with their expenses.

I didn't have a destination wedding by any means, but I do live on the far end of the country from where I was raised, and I booked a couple of hotel rooms for guests who were in grad school or financially struggling.

You might also contact a travel agent and see if you can arrange a group discount on airfare.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:07 AM on May 31, 2007

How do we go about this without hurting feelings?

I don't think you need to worry so much about hurting your guests' feelings -- but you might need to worry about your own feelings, because plenty of people, even people who care about you a lot and have enough money to make this trip, are not going to come. This is no reason not to do it; but you have to make a commitment to yourselves now that you won't be offended when old friends and close family members aren't at your wedding.

I think adding a "casual reception back home" is a great idea, and don't be so sure "it's not the same": many people find the memories of the less formal celebrations preceding or following the wedding to be just as rich and important as those of the wedding day itself. And this will go doubly for you if more of your loved ones are present at the non-wedding part of the wedding!
posted by escabeche at 11:08 AM on May 31, 2007

Only invite family & people you know for sure can afford it to your destination wedding. Throw a party back home for everyone else. Do you really want to force people to save up to attend your wedding? That doesn't seem right to me.
posted by footnote at 11:24 AM on May 31, 2007

As far as the wedding party goes, I think if you are going to ask someone to actually be in the ceremony, you should, at the very least, split the travel costs with them.

I mean, "I want you in my wedding, and here's what it will cost you to travel there." is a little funky.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:28 AM on May 31, 2007

I've been to destination weddings in cities where the wedding couple (or their parents) arranged and paid for an upholstered bus to come to a central location and carry guests to the ceremony/reception. That worked nicely because guests could arrive in the city whenever they wanted and lodge wherever they wanted, which potentially makes it cheaper for guests without a lot of money. The wedding couple did also reserve rooms in a convenient hotel for guests who could afford to make things easy on themselves.

One wedding I was not able to attend due to expense was at a resort where the only option was to stay at that one place, for three nights minimum. It worked out to $1000 per guest/couple, not including airfare. I would have attended if there was any sort of work-around, but there wasn't.

Guests do traditionally pay for their own airfare and lodging. It's great if you can take that into account by getting married on a day that's favorable for good rates (e.g. slightly in the off-season, or that allows for a Saturday-stay), and being near a range of hotels/campgrounds.

You can send a save-the-date email/postcard as soon as you have the date arranged, and then the actual invitations go out whenever etiquette dictates. I'm heading to a destination wedding in early September and received the save-the-date itinerary back in April. For this wedding, the bride's father is paying for some of his relatives to fly in. There will be a local party in October too, and the wedding couple has made it clear that no one should feel obligated to go to both events.
posted by xo at 11:30 AM on May 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think escabeche made a great point about managing your own expectations first. My best friend is having a destination wedding on Maui this November, and she's being very careful to stress to people that, while she'd love to have them there, she doesn't expect them to. Remember that people may have issues with money, other plans for their vacation time, or just not be able to make it, and they don't owe you an explanation for why. If you would really miss a particular person if they couldn't make it, then think about helping them to foot the bill. I think it's also polite to tell people that their presence is their gift. Some will get you something additional anyway, but expecting that would be pretty tasteless, in my opinion.
posted by MsMolly at 11:31 AM on May 31, 2007

I know someone who recently did a Central American wedding, and she was surprised at how many close friends/family members declined to attend. When I spoke to mutual friends who didn't go, they mentioned a few things she (inadvertently) did that made the time and money requirements unfeasible for them. I should add that we're talking about a crowd of twenty-somethings without tons of money or lots of vacation leeway at work - your friends may be different:

1. Avoid picking a location where the majority of your guests will have to endure several legs of travel - I guess the absolute ideal is guests being able to take a direct flight and a short taxi or shuttle ride. This is more of a time issue than money - if guests have to take 2 or more flights with long connection waits and then get on a bus or ferry for another few hours, it easily adds up to a day of travel each way. Besides being annoying, it's hard to justify so much travel for a weekend vacation, so it really only makes sense to take a whole week off of work.

2. It'd be great to pick a place that has a high volume of flights/airlines coming in and out - the flights tend to be cheaper and people can use miles they've accrued with specific airlines. Similarly, it'd be great if the hotel or the overall town had room options at a variety of different price levels.

3. If you can afford it, give people the option of bringing a significant other so they can more easily justify making a real vacation out of it.

4. Also if you can afford it, consider providing even just a continental breakfast for your guests - I think people are often happy to go out to eat for dinner, but three meals a day is expensive.

5. I don't know if etiquette requires that you pay for transport/boarding for your bridal party, but if you are planning on having traditionally dressed bridesmaids I think it would be really, really nice if you paid for either their flights/rooms or their dresses/shoes.

Congratulations, and good luck with your planning!
posted by lalex at 11:34 AM on May 31, 2007

Two experiences:

I was invited to one at an all-inclusive resort in the Bahamas. I didn't go because the 3-day package was $2k and the 7-day was $4k plus flights. So expensive the bride's brothers didn't go. So that wasn't great.

OTOH, I went to one in Maui where there was an organized effort to rent condos that could sleep three couples each, which made it very affordable for a week. Then the bride & groom had a cabana at a nice hotel where they had the wedding. It worked out well.
posted by smackfu at 11:44 AM on May 31, 2007

Thanks for all the fantastic answers so far!

For the record, while C.A. resorts can be plenty pricey, there will definitely be dirt-cheap yet decent accommodations nearby (~$10 a night). Plane tickets are ~$400-$500. So as exotic locales go, C.A. isn't ridiculously expensive.

Also, we would never ever "force" anyone to save for our wedding -- yikes!
posted by changeling at 12:07 PM on May 31, 2007

you really do just have to have the expectation that most people won't be able to come. when i got married in south africa, i knew my family wouldn't be able to afford it - even my immediate family.

if you are determined to have a "wedding party", you'll have to apply the same expectations - your best friend may not be able to afford to be your bridesmaid, etc. you may have to pick people who can commit to spending that kind of money, or offer to help out.

and beware you may end up with a contingent of people who *can* afford to go, but who you don't really care very much about.

that being said, central america is pretty cheap as far as destinations go. if you give people plenty of time to plan, you'll probably do okay.

and i'd definitely go with a resort wedding package - you just don't want to have to try to organise something yourself in another country you're not familiar with. way too much hassle.
posted by wayward vagabond at 1:13 PM on May 31, 2007

To get a sense of what a close-knit destination wedding at Ambergris Caye can look like.

As far as I know, a dinner locally was held for those who didn't travel to the wedding.
posted by cior at 1:20 PM on May 31, 2007

I just got back from a wedding in Atlanta (not destination per se, but the groom's family and friends and most of the bride's friends are all in NY), and they did several things to make things easier on the travelers:

-They chose a long weekend to have the wedding so we didn't need to take time off of work.

-They paid for the bridal party's accommodations and those of the poor grad students. (I know not everyone will be able to afford to help guests out like this, but it was what made at least 5 friends be able to go.)

-They provided breakfast on the day of the wedding, and muffins and coffee to go on the morning after so we didn't have to eat out.

-They chose a venue that had different price levels for rooms.

-They provided a whole lot of information on the venue and lodging and car rental options with the invitation so we knew what to expect and how we should budget for the trip.
posted by rmless at 1:22 PM on May 31, 2007

Presumably you've been to these places, so you know what it takes to get there? Your guests should certainly be made to understand that its not like they get off the plane, take a nice comfy ride to the wedding, enjoy the ceremony, and pop off to their homes again.

That may sound snarky, but having been to both places (and nearby environs) I can say that I wouldnt want to be surprised by the craziness of, say, Belize City or La Ceiba while they're waiting for their beautiful white beaches and lobster roasts.

Just make sure everyone is well and fully informed as to all their options (expensive or budget) for getting to your wedding. The places you suggest are not that difficult to get to, but everyone has their own idea of what comfort means. Some people may not be comfy with staying in, for example, La Ceiba for a night waiting for the ferry (which goes to the Bay Islands only every other day as I recall) and witnessing the military trucks full of armed teenage soldiers riding through the city.

Lonely Planet has valuable info for all travellers, regardless of their budgetary constraints and you may even find some folks who have done what you wish to do and offer their advice.
posted by elendil71 at 1:40 PM on May 31, 2007

When you notify guests about your date and your plans, also tell them about the reception you'll be having close to home. That party should be just as "real" a celebration as the Central America trip -- that is, be careful not to give the impression that it's less important (even though it probably has to be). There's nothing wrong with a casual party, but the guests won't want to feel like they're second string because they couldn't travel.

Whether or not people will feel hurt or put out has everything to do with how you communicate, and on your relationship with the individual friends and relatives. Some people are going to get their noses out of joint no matter what you do; it's just their way. But it's good that you're making a special effort to be sensitive. And any wedding that requires guests to spend a lot of money can cause hard feelings if the bride and groom seem to take their guests and attendants for granted. Talking about money can be awkward, but it will be less so if you and your betrothed would be as direct as possible as early on as possible. If you're intending to pay for your maid of honor's trip, say so -- don't assume that she knows. And if you not planning to help with the costs, tell her that when you ask if she'll take on the role.

Also money isn't the only factor in people's decision about attending. Time is also crucial. Some friends may other ideas of where they want to spend their only vacation of the year. Try to be understanding about this sort of thing. Have you put out feelers to see how enthusiastic your potential guests might be?
posted by wryly at 1:47 PM on May 31, 2007

elendil, you're definitely right, and it's something we're considering. I've backpacked all over C.A., including La Ceiba, Belize City, Ambergris & the Bay Islands.

Fortunately, travelers can fly right in to Belize City and right out again to Ambergris (I prefer the beautiful boat ride myself). And Taca now offers direct flights to Roatan from Miami, Houston & Atlanta, I think, on Saturdays. That's what made Roatan a possibility -- I'd written it off before because the overland journey can be so wild.

As you can see, I'd been planning this in my head long before Saturday's proposal :)
posted by changeling at 1:49 PM on May 31, 2007

Also, immediate family and tier 1 friends have been informed, and are generally enthusiastic. MoH will be my twin. Late March works for tier 1's grad school spring breaks, so far.
posted by changeling at 1:53 PM on May 31, 2007

Only you know your guests, but what gives me pause about your plan is not having a destination wedding, but your actual destinations. I work in the travel industry and know them to be lovely, but because they are below-the-radar, most of america would need to be educated about them, sold on the idea of going there, and then assured and reassured that it is safe and pleasant. My parents were convinced I was going to be kidnapped when I went to Costa Rica. And Costa Rica is like the Disneyland of Central America.

You are not required to pay for anyone's travel. But you may want to have a slush fund to help out people you really care about who need help to make it. This may also lead to uncomfortable discussions with your intended over who is "slush-fund worthy."

You need to do serious research into how people will get to and from your destination. Check the travel time and price from various cities that your family and friends live in. Pay close attention to bottle-necks and dead-ends. These are very unforgiving for people on 2-3 day trips. For example, if 75% of your people will need to connect in Miami, you need to accept that weather issues in Miami will ruin your wedding as much as if you were in Miami. If the last transport to your resort is at 9:00pm, I can guarantee a bunch of people will miss it.

Have your eyes open, you will be very responsible for babysitting your guests on a level you may not have expected. For example: the amount of time required to get a passport is very high right now-- at least 3 months. Every trip I led this spring had several people who couldn't get a passport in time. All of them had been warned and cajoled and reminded multiple times. The time to get a passport is going to stay high for a while as people adjust to needing a passport to travel to Canada, Mexico, and on Cruises.

The program I ran in Costa Rica is a good example of the things that you should keep in mind. The hotel was 2.5 hours from the airport which made everything worse. We had 60 people arriving on Thursday and leaving on Sunday. 3 couldn't get a passport in time. 1 person got a passport, but came in 1 day late because they didn't get it in time for their original departure. One whole connecting flight out of a main connecting city got canceled and all 15 of those people were delayed 24 hours. So they arrived at 6:00 Friday night and many had to leave at 3am on Sunday. They were not happy. 2 people were sick the whole weekend. 1 person got bit by something and insisted on going home immediately for medical care.

All these things can happen anywhere, and none of them are guaranteed to happen. My point is that when you are the reason people have traveled so far away, they tend to think that you are responsible for them. So you may end up spending a lot of time being a travel agent instead of a bride. So know this going in and ask your local professionals a lot of "what if" questions. This all depends on your guests. For some people, they'd be in the same predicament if they got married in Chicago or in Cancun.

There is nothing wrong with getting married far away and then having a local reception. Try to do a few things so that people don't feel like they missed anything. Show a slideshow or short video of the wedding. Wear your dress again. Do some of the traditional things: toasts, first dance.

I say go for it, but do your research and know your guests. Heck, make 20 phone calls to potential guests and bounce the idea off them.
posted by Mozzie at 2:05 PM on May 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Our wedding was in the Cook Islands, we organized a couple of houses to rent by the beach there for everyone to stay in and had the local resort run the actual wedding ceremony and reception - this kept things cheaper for people (not having to stay at the resort) but made sure someone else worried about all the wedding planning. It worked out pretty well, actually it kept the wedding fairly small - everyone who was there really wanted to be there and they all got a nice vacation somewhere where a large number of them wouldn't have traveled to without an excuse.
posted by mikw at 2:06 PM on May 31, 2007

My husband's from Australia and I'm from the US, and this is exactly why we didn't try to have a proper wedding. Wherever we went, somebody was going to be excluded. So instead we did what we wanted (Vegas) and asked that nobody attend, but rather watch it live on the Internet. Then we had a reception in both places with our families and friends. I was worried that my Grandma was going to be disappointed at not getting to attend, but it turns out that a lot of people appreciated that we didn't ask/expect them to spend a lot of time and money getting there.

It is possible to broadcast the wedding from one of your locations? Might be a nice option for those who can't make it.
posted by web-goddess at 2:34 PM on May 31, 2007

Also, we would never ever "force" anyone to save for our wedding -- yikes!
posted by changeling at 3:07 PM on May 31 [+]

By "force" I guess I meant "expect." I don't think you have a right to expect people to save up for your wedding. If they're in the financial position that they don't have the extra $1000 or so on hand for your wedding now, then it seems wrong to me that they should be expected to spend their hard-earned cash on your wedding. As lots of other people suggested, give them the option of a hometown reception later on, so they don't feel at all guilty for missing the wedding.
posted by footnote at 2:35 PM on May 31, 2007

I've been to two destination weddings in the last couple of years, and one thing I liked was that neither issued formal, printed invitations. The form of a printed invitation is very limiting, and it tends to imply a very limited response, as well.

Deciding to go to a destination wedding isn't a single, simple decision, as you're well aware, so avoid using the printed invitation that implies all they have to do is look at their calendar to see if they're free that day.

"Invitations" should be issued via personal communication--phone, in person, or email, depending on how you normally communicate with people. It should be a conversation more than an invitation. Tell them your plans, and tell them you'd love for them to join you, but understand they'll need some time to decide if the trip is right for them. Make it clear that they can change their minds later, even if their immediate thrilled reaction is 'Of course, I wouldn't miss your wedding for the world!' The likelihood is that work schedules, personal commitments and finances will turn out to be much larger than the world for many of your potential guests.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:01 PM on May 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

My opinion: The social aspect of a typical wedding is significant, in that it matters that the marrying couple is making a declaration meant to be witnessed by members of their community. Therefore, when you invite someone to a wedding, you are asking them perform the role of witness to the creation of your marriage.

Given that you are asking them perform a service for you, creating unnecessary obstacles to fulfilling your request (distance and expense) and leaving the burden of those obstacles to your guests is improper.

Compounding that, whoever makes the arrangements is host to the those attending, and going out of your way to impose burdens on your guests is the opposite of good hospitality.

This is my reasoning for my answer: yes, if you don't hold the wedding within your geographic community (near bride's home, near groom's home, or near one of the family's homes) you owe it to those you invite to cover their travel expenses (and probably their lodging costs, too, if your chosen location makes short stays impractical).

I am not asserting that the "witness role" is the only or even dominant aspect of the invitation, but rather that it is real and therefore does confer responsibilities on the person making the request/invitation.
posted by NortonDC at 10:28 PM on June 3, 2007

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