planning a destination wedding: a bride’s sage advice


Last March, my best friend Eugenia and her husband Mike planned a destination wedding in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. I was lucky enough to be Eugenia’s Maid of Honour, and it remains one of my most memorable vacations. Eugenia and Mike celebrated their one year wedding anniversary on March 7, and with a year’s worth of perspective, I asked Eugenia what it takes to plan a great destination wedding.

Why choose a destination wedding? 

I’m a private person, I initially wanted to elope. Mike wanted a large, traditional wedding; but because I didn’t want to do the traditional “invite everyone and their cousin” type of celebration, we compromised on a destination wedding. We figured it was a good way to balance the cost of a wedding and honeymoon combined, all while vacationing with our closest loved ones (I’m more of a multi-tasker!).

Cost was another major factor that played into our decision. We’re very money “careful” with most of our decisions, especially large-ticket items, which also helped make our decision to plan a destination wedding easier.

What factors did you consider when picking your wedding destination?

  1. We wanted a “new” place that we hadn’t been to before.
  2. We checked out online recommendations and reviews.
  3. Cost was also a factor. The Hotel Rui Guanacaste runs between $2,000 – $3,000 CAD per person on any given day; however, a group savings allowed everyone to fly for $1,500 CAD.
  4. FOOD! The food reviews, recommendations and variety had to be next to amazing.

More times than not you hear that planning a wedding is a stressful experience for a lot of couples, the bride especially. Knowing that you had to trust that your wedding planner would give you the wedding you pictured in your head, what do you think makes a good destination wedding planner? Is a destination wedding not for the faint of heart?

For me, a good planner will answer a bride’s emails quickly and hopefully with accommodating solutions to her requests.

Our wedding planner did a nice job in terms of timely responses to my emails and inquiries however, a few things that could have went above and beyond, considering the amount of people that were attending and the amount we were spending, were:

  • Working with the hotel in order to block off a floor for most, if not all, of the guests – we were too spread out;
  • Not only arranging, but ensuring that the bride’s room was cleaned and prepped properly the day of the wedding; and
  • We paid extra for champagne service, etc. – however, we had to move into your room to get ready because it was cleaned before mine, the bride! My room was done after the wedding…I’ll stop there!

Destination wedding can be for anyone. It depends on how much each couple is willing to spend while they’re away. It also depends on how organized they are. Personally,  I think it’s a nice idea. More of a wild and unconventional choice versus the typical stay-at-home wedding.

The destination weddings I’ve attended (all two of them) usually have a guest list of less than 50 people. Did you have any trouble narrowing down the guest list? Any awkward moments?

We invited everyone we wanted to. Our immediate families had a few ideas of who they’d wanted to see attend, and we didn’t mind who they invited.

Our list contained approximately 75 people – some people we knew couldn’t come, but they received the invite anyway. We made it very clear in our invite that: this is an expensive trip/wedding to attend – no one has an obligation to attend as we were throwing a house party in August afterwards.

We have small immediate families. Most of our “family” consists of our closest friends, so we were lucky in the sense that we didn’t have to narrow it down.

Some people felt worse than they should have for not being able to attend – that was awkward because we didn’t want any hurt feelings.

I can’t remember how you transported your dress on the plane. Did the airline offer you any assistance? I don’t remember seeing you stuff it into the overhead compartment!

For such a planner and control-freak, can you believe that I don’t fully recall!? I think I did have it in my carry-on; that small dress could fit in my pocket if I folded it right!

I didn’t think of any other alternative methods to transport it – I knew we could steam it at the hotel, so I wasn’t overly cautious or worried. Worst case scenario, I would have three days full of shopping in Costa Rica to find a new dress!

Because you were essentially inviting over 30 people on vacation with you, did you find it stressful coordinating not only your wedding, but your guests too? Feel any pressure to show everyone a good time?  Any advice?

It wasn’t stressful, but I did put all the pressure on myself. I looked up restaurants and excursions to visit. I coordinated special dinners or evenings (one for a groomsman’s birthday; one for the “just the girls” and “just the guys” before the wedding; the wedding dinner obviously; and one “last dinner” together. I put an itinerary and schedule together for everyday – letting people know when they were free to frolic versus planned special events. I balanced it out 50/50 so that people had enough “alone time”.

My Advice? Coordinate/book restaurants/spa, etc. ahead of time and give people an itinerary.  This takes the pressure off the bride’s shoulders and leaves it up to the guests to follow.

We got our hair and make-up done at the resort’s spa for the wedding. Did the resort’s wedding planner or website provide you with any resources/pictures to give you an idea of what beauty/make-up services you would have available? 

I was provided with the option to do a hair and make-up “test-drive” at the hotel before the wedding. Again, for the sake of saving $100 and precious time, I winged it and just showed up for the hair appointment on the day of the wedding. I was happy to do my own make-up, that would last maybe an hour in that heat/humidity! The salon recommended I bring pictures of the style I wanted. I don’t believe they offered pictures of their own.

I’m “simple” and just wanted curls, which in hindsight was not the greatest idea in extreme heat and humid temperatures! Probably another reason why I was OK to wing it – I could want-what-I-want; however, the weather will give me what it wants.

You had your wedding on the beach at dusk. What other options did you have available and what made you choose one over the other?

The beach was the primary option. There were other time slots available to chose from. We didn’t want it first thing in the morning (for the night owls partying the night before); we didn’t want it midday (because of the extreme heat); dusk was the perfect time and temperature – and most romantic.

There was an indoor option/bad-weather option if we wanted it, but it wouldn’t have done the location justice. We preferred the outdoors.

I’m sure the legal requirements of every country differ, but what documents/procedures did you have to complete in order to ensure you would fulfill the country’s marriage requirements?

Costa Rica required copies of our passports; birth certificates; and a few applications to be filled out (your birthplace/parents, etc. – almost like a passport application). No other unusual requirements (some countries require blood tests to ensure you’re not related, not Costa Rica).

Costa Rica also provides the final copy of the marriage certificate/license, that is recognized in Canada – which is great as it didn’t require me to do any other further filing when we returned.

Anything you would do differently if given the chance? Any other advice?

YES! We went for 10 days total. 7 days with the group, and 3 days afterwards to ourselves. Biggest mistake. We got so depressed when everyone left. It was indescribable.

If I had to do it over again, I would:

  • Arrive three days prior to our guests in order to get some quality time with Mike and explore the resort;
  • Make sure that all guests’ rooms were closer to each other;
  • Ensure that our room would be perfect the morning of our wedding so that I could enjoy it; and
  • I would have changed our room from the beginning, as most of our guests had a much better and larger room and balcony than us (I was too polite to change it and insisted that Mikey didn’t stir the pot).

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