The day Karan Kamerkar and Birva Shah got married in Mexico was also the first time they saw the venue in person, or even set foot in the country.
The New Jersey couple’s first trip to Quintana Roo – the Mexican state home to Cancun and sunny beaches – was also their destination wedding in November 2023 with about 300 of their friends and family.
They had looked at venues like wineries around the New York area but had yet to find the right fit or cost for a big Indian wedding. The idea to tie the knot elsewhere sparked after the couple, who got engaged on New Year’s Eve in 2022, attended a wedding for some friends in Jamaica. “We saw how easy it was for everyone to get around the resort,” Kamerkar told USA TODAY. “We wanted to not make it just around the wedding. We wanted people to enjoy themselves.”
Mexico seemed like a “no-brainer,” Shah said. They had never been to the warm-climate country, so that was already enticing, and the locale seemed relatively “hassle-free” for everyone to travel to. Most importantly, friends had recommended Mexican resorts that are well-experienced in hosting South Asian weddings and, specifically, Hindu ceremonies.
But there was one major hitch: “We were going in there blind,” Kamerkar said.
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More newlyweds-to-be are considering destination weddings over getting married in their hometowns, according to Sarah Klingman, founder and CEO of Gather, an event-planning company that helps couples plan weddings on a project basis.
“There is an element around social media and creating an enhanced curiosity for travel, for being really adventurous,” Klingman told USA TODAY. “We’re going on this adventure with each other and our friends and family.”
Because Kamerkar and Shah were saving up for a house at the time, the couple couldn’t afford a trip to check out properties. “Where is this resort? Where’s this at?” he said. “We have no idea, but we’re planning our entire wedding at a place in a new country. It was eye-opening.”
But it was worth it. “There was the excitement of everyone wanting to be there and enjoying themselves relaxing,” Shah said. Guests came from California, Texas, Canada and even all the way from India.
The couple had two full days of events, and most of their guests stayed at the El Dorado Spa Resorts & Hotels resort for a few extra days to enjoy the beaches and amenities at their leisure while getting to know one another’s family and friends. The couple could also infuse personalized touches into their itinerary, from hookah and henna during their welcome cocktail evening to honoring Denali, the Indian festival of lights, with sparklers.
Weddings can often “go by in such an instant, and it’s over too soon,” said Jared Benoff, a destination wedding travel adviser for Vacationeeze. Benoff was the coordinator who helped the couple plan their wedding. “The beauty of a destination wedding is that it’s four to five days. You get to spend time with friends and family outside of that formal cocktail hour.”
Planning a wedding is already stressful, and adding a layer of travel for a large group of people can make it even more challenging. Here are some key tips to planning a destination wedding, according to experts who make the magic happen.
1. Not all resorts are created equal
In Benoff’s opinion, choosing the right resort to host the wedding is the biggest and most difficult decision. What could be a great resort for a family-friendly vacation or honeymoon, or even have top reviews, may not be the right fit to tie the knot for a number of reasons. “Couples find resorts on Instagram, and they get really excited because their pool is amazing, but their wedding team can’t pull off a 100-person wedding event,” he said.
“You want a resort that has planned enough weddings and has an understanding of planning weddings but isn’t a wedding factory. It makes a big difference when you get that special attention.” This is where Benoff typically steps in: when the engaged know they want a destination wedding but feel overwhelmed and don’t know how to navigate a resort’s wedding offerings.
2. Plan early, but not too early
“The key to a destination wedding is really starting early,” Klingman said. “The earlier the better. They’re planning a big trip, at the end of the day.”
Kamekar and Shah began planning their wedding a year before the event. They regularly sent out emails to keep guests updated on various stages of the process, such as booking the venue, renewing passports if needed, and arranging flights. The emails also included reminders for the hotel booking deadline. “Give yourself more time than you think,” Kamekar said. “There’s so many people moving back and forth, especially older relatives.”
There is a caveat: Plan too early and people can’t book flights. According to Benoff, the sweet spot is around a year from when you start the process. That allows guests three to four months to determine their availability and start arranging travel plans. The final payments can then be made in the last three to four months leading up to the event. “You want to give your guests enough time to take off work and pay for travel. It goes back to the consideration factor,” he said.
3. Think about your priorities
With everything that goes into a destination wedding, it’s possible that it’s not even the right choice for some couples. “There are so many pros, but the one con is not every guest is going to be there,” Klingman said. “A lot of couples like the idea of a destination wedding but can’t stomach the idea of a grandma not making it.”
It really comes down to priorities. For some, it can be a grand adventure or create enhanced intimacy if it’s a small wedding.
“It’s really an amazing opportunity to travel and see the world but also celebrate your growing circle,” Klingman said. A destination wedding can also be an hour’s drive away, not necessarily a trans-Atlantic flight to Italy.
Klingman said you not to take it personally if someone can’t attend the wedding because of costs or limited time off.
4. Yes, it can be cost-effective
In 2023, the average American wedding budget was $30,000, but many couples working with Benoff – who specializes in weddings in the Caribbean and Mexico with an average of 70 guests – can easily keep to an average budget of $17,000. The biggest factors are going to be the guest list and resort’s wedding package.
Nearly every resort offers some sort of incentive, whether that be a comprehensive wedding package (“you’re pretty much covered under that,” Benoff said) or an offer in which your guests book a certain number of rooms and you get credit toward something like wedding decor or entertainment. “It takes mental accounting,” he said.
5. Offer some activities, but don’t go crazy
Another perk of having a destination wedding is exploring the destination itself, and most guests stay about four nights. Benoff advises couples not to book too many activities so guests don’t feel overscheduled. Opt for optional activities or just plan excursions when you’re there. “You want a good experience, and I think part of that is giving your guests time to relax,” he said.
Los Angeles-based Daphne Haraburd and Daniel Tegnelia got married in Manhattan before Christmas and gave guests recommendations for hotels, restaurants and things to do, like exploring New York’s iconic Christmas markets.
6. Get some boots on the ground
Calling herself a “Type A” person who knew exactly what she wanted for her wedding, Haraburd tried to plan things herself, but with her and Tegnelia working full-time and in a different time zone than the East Coast, she ended up hiring Klingman to help. Klingman, who is based near New York, scoped out Haraburd’s venue list and showed the couple on video chat. “It’s impossible to do without it,” Haraburd said. “You definitely need somebody who’s there to help you in person.”
On the evening of her 80-person wintertime wedding, Haraburd felt “nervous” that everything was going to come together just as she envisioned it.
About 90% of Benoff’s clients have never been to the resort or even the destination before the big day. “It’s so different than if you were planning local,” Benoff said, in which you typically visit the venue multiple times. Ultimately, you’re putting a lot of trust into your on-site planner who comes with the resort, a third-party coordinator like Benoff and the vendors.
For couples on the fence about a destination wedding, Tegnelia said, they should go for it. “A lot of people remember their vacations, so to have a wedding on a vacation is twice as memorable.”
Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at [email protected].