How to plan the ultimate destination wedding on a budget.

The concept of getting married in an exotic locale has become increasingly popular in recent years. Most people have either been invited to or attended such an event where more than a few of us were left  wondering how much does a wedding like this cost? All this, of course, would be pondered while munching mystery desserts and sipping regional beverages like pisco sours or terremotos.

Truth be told, destination weddings don´t have to cost a fortune. You can actually spend less than you would in your home town. Don´t get me wrong, you can also spend a six figure fortune, but I´m not here to help you plan that event.

This article is geared toward all my travel babes who want some insight on pulling off a dream wedding on a shoestring.

Oh yes, it can be done.

You don´t have to spend a fortune to have a five star event.

I got married earlier this year in February (which is summer in my part of the world). My husband and I tied the knot in a charming, colonial era mountain town in central Bolivia. Here´s what our event included:

  • Wedding ceremony in a palace (yes, you read that right)
  • Officiant for the ceremony
  • Live Mariachi band
  • 2 professional photographers
  • Afternoon reception with filet mignon as the main course
  • Fancy wedding cake
  • Local wine, beer and champagne
  • Party favors for guests
  • Evening reception with music, appetizers, booze and dancing
  • Multi location photo shoot
  • Fresh flowers for all bouquets (including bridal), table arrangements, corsages and boutineer
  • Guest list of 50 people
  • Designer wedding dress by Maggie Sottero
  • Casual 2nd bridal gown for the evening reception
  • Custom made suit for the groom

By now, you´ve likely read this and said something to the effect of, “Wasn´t this supposed to be about budget destination weddings?”

Well that´s the thing. The grand total for everything listed above was only 1K US dollars.

(Que record scratch noise)

That´s right, I managed to pull off everything on that list for only a thousand US dollars.  I´ve been a world traveler on a budget for years and planning the ultimate destination wedding presented a new and unique challenge. When we got engaged, I had recently completed a 1.5 year trek across 7 countries and 3 continents. My husband was still finishing law school and working part time. Our savings and combined income was modest, so creative planning was a must!

So let me clue you into the tricks I used to create a beautiful, memorable and affordable wedding celebration. (FYI: These tips can also be used for planning a vow renewal or anniversary party)

Pick a destination that isn´t popular for weddings.

Now I´m not saying pick somewhere that´s ugly, just not a place that´s popular with weddings. You´d be surprised how reasonably priced venues are when you´re not one of hundreds of couples waiting to become the next Mr. And Mrs. at a certain spot.

How much does it costs to get married in a historic palace? Less than you think.

For example, if you´re craving a Caribbean beach wedding, you´ll pay top dollar on most islands just to tie the knot while surrounded by a crowd of gawking strangers (most beaches aren´t private). However, if you pick islands that don´t get a lot of wedding traffic, yet have beautiful tropical beaches (check out the Bay Islands, Honduras or the Corn Islands, Nicarauga); not only will you get a better price by choosing a less popular spot, you likely won´t have to fight hoards of tourists on your special day either.

Other examples worth considering are: Obscure National Parks, historic buildings, or less famous ruins and monuments that have the ambiance and climate you´re trying to capture.

When we booked El Palaciete for our ceremony, we were the first couple to be married there since the family who built the castle. It was such an unusual request, the office people told us to talk to the care taker, who agreed to come in on the Saturday we had our ceremony for a whole $30 USD.

We literally rented a castle for our wedding ceremony for $30 dollars. Seriously.

Like I said, give some lesser known but equally beautiful locations a chance. You´ll save a ton of money AND have a truly unique wedding experience.

Feed and water people in the afternoon vs. the evening.

 We all know the most expensive part of any wedding is feeding and watering (and by watering, I mean getting drunk), the swarms of vultures…oops, I mean friends and family…who expect to be entertained like kings.

To take some of the pressure off your wallet, consider having an afternoon or lunch reception instead of the traditional evening affair. Not only do restaurants and catering companies offer better rates for a lunch event, but people tend to eat and drink less during the day than in the evening.

Lunch receptions are budget friendly.

This presented an interesting challenge for my own wedding because the old trick of having a strictly “cash bar” is not only unheard of in Bolivian culture (my husband and his family are Bolivian), but it´s actually insulting.

Our solution to this was to buy a set amount of alcohol and non alcholoic beverages for the reception (up to a specific dollar amount) and everything above and beyond the pre-paid amount would be a normal cash bar.

This was a way to compromise on the culturally sensitive issue of providing the required amount of alcohol expected for guests, without blowing the budget.

We also worked out a deal with our reception venue to let us bring in our own cake and champagne for a small surcharge (which worked out to about $20 US dollars). This saved us a boat load of money! Many smaller, family owned restaurants and venues are open to the idea of you bringing in some of your own stuff.

This left our smaller, evening reception free to enjoy dancing and drinking (with DJ style music) with the food left overs from our lunch party converted into bite size appetizers and reheated for guests to munch while gettin´ their groove on.

So we essentially got two rounds of food for the price of one!

These kinds of deals are possible with smaller, less “weddingy” locations. You also have a much better chance negotiating rates for food and booze with a mom-and-pop style place.

Ask friends and family to donate a skill or service as their “gift”.

Most people now a days don´t register for china patterns, blenders and toasters. Couples are also getting married later, which means you likely already have a house full of stuff.

So instead of a traditional registry, ask any talented, artistic friends you have to consider donating their time and skills as a wedding gift.

That´s how we ended up with our bilingual officiant, who is my boss and an official goverment translator.  It´s also how we got one of our photographers; one of my besties is a professional photographer. My husband´s sister knows a baker and offered to donate our wedding cake as a gift. My aunt is a seamstress and did the alterations on my dress for free.

And the list goes on.

Chances are, you know someone who´s good with: Makeup, flowers, photography, cooking, baking, decorating, sewing or similar such talents. You´d be surprised how many people would prefer to offer their skills vs. shopping for the so called “perfect” gift.

Join the DIY nation.

We had a blessed number of helpers for our event, but also handled a lot of the detail stuff ourselves. For example: I worked in a flower shop years ago, so I did all the fresh flower arrangements, bouquets and boutineers myself. (even if you don´t have floral skills, there are great YouTube tutorials out there for learning)

We had our own decorations for the reception venue and I made my own bridal jewelry (again, LOTS of YouTube tutorials for this). My mother and I also made the party favors for our guests (personalized boxes of local, artisanal chocolates).

Bottom line: You can save a bundle of bucks if you´re willing to do some of the work yourself. Only the sky and your creativity is the limit!

You can do your own flowers and decorations, the sky is the limit.

Ladies….consider buying a consignment store dress.

I know, I know…the concept of a second hand wedding dress is enough to make most women cringe, but hear me out.

Did you know that there are tons of dresses that were purchased for nuptials that never happened and were not even worn? Bridal shops also donate surplus, irregular and last season styles to consignment stores to make room on their racks for the latest fashions.

It´s not all sweat stained, wine splattered dumpster frocks.

My mom found a vintage, never worn Maggie Sottero dress at a consignment store in my size (retail price: $3,000 USD) aaaand she got it for…… $40 USD.

That´s right, I ended up with a brand new, unique dress by a famous designer for forty bucks.  You´d pay more than that for an off the rack, bargain dress at David´s Bridal.

I had some custom alterations done on the train and had money left over to buy a second, more casual party dress for our evening reception. (1 bride. 2 dresses for 2 different receptions. Now that´s ballin on a budget.)

This can be a fun scavenger hunt for my thrifty lovin´ gals who like a challenge. You are likely to find some hilarious lemons in the process too (Uh…80s style taffeta, puffy sleeves anyone?), but keep your eyes peeled and you just might find a diamond!

$3,000 designer dress for $40? Um, yes please!

Pick a country where your money goes farther.

This is an addendum to my first point about picking less popular venues, but you should also opt for a country where the exchange rate is in your favor.

For example, if you´re an American or European and your wedding budget is calculated in dollars or euros, then choose somewhere that gives you more bang for your buck. Amazing locations for destination weddings to stretch your budget can be found in:

  • Central and South America
  • Phillippines
  • Vietnam
  • Thailand
  • North Africa (i.e. Morocco)
  • Eastern Europe
  • Indonesia
  • India

Those are just a few examples to whet your appetite for a wild and colorful wedding adventure. Start your Google search engines and you´re off to the races!

However if you have your heart stuck on somewhere that´s tough on the ol´ pocket book (i.e. Paris), then consider moving your event to the low season for weddings. There are savings to be found in the off season.

Well there you have it, my personal go-to tips that saved my husband and I wheelbarrow full of cash on our wedding. Making smart spending choices doesn´t mean you have to skimp on luxury or glamor…if you do it right.

Until next time, keep wandering and find the perfect place for your dream wedding!

** Professional photography by Kristina Diaz. Follow her on Instagram @visualstoriesbyk