10 Things you Should Know about Eloping

Eloping couple in CaliforniaPlanning an elopement is not always easy

While eloping is supposed to reduce the stress and expense of planning a large, traditional wedding, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t pitfalls to watch for.  Not knowing everything there is to know about eloping can result in occurences that can really torpedo your wedding.

I’ve been planning elopements since 2002, and even I can be thrown a curve ball every now and then. Recently, we held an intimate wedding for a couple in a redwood park in California. We were confident we’d done all our due diligence and pre-wedding day planning, so imagine our chagrin when the couple and our vendors showed up to the site, permit in hand, only to find the park had closed off the site for maintenance and had neglected to let us know. We managed to pull it off by making a quick phone call to the park ranger, who immediately–and very apologetically–rushed down and let us in (and it worked out well because the couple ended up getting married in a totally private outdoor redwood setting).

Lesson learned. Even though that was the first time in 22 years that a pre-booked venue wasn’t available, we’re not leaving anything to chance in the future. The venue has been added to the list of all the vendors we text on the morning of the wedding to ensure all is well.

While that was the most recent challenge we’ve handled over the years, it certainly wasn’t the first. So I thought eloping couples might find these 10 tips about eloping helpful.

Eloping couple in Colorado | Things to know about eloping

1. There’s more to eloping than Vegas

You probably already know this if you’ve spent any time researching small weddings. But if this is your first introduction to the world of eloping, let me reassure you–Vegas is no longer the Mecca of spontaneous weddings. In fact, the number of ceremonies performed in Vegas has dropped nearly 40% in the past ten years. So, if you’re thinking you’d like something small and stress-free, you don’t have to resign yourself to having an Elvis impersonator as your officiant or the cheesy chapel on the strip as your venue! It’s possible to elope without getting on a plane bound for Nevada.

Older couple kissing after their California elopement

2. All elopement packages are not created equal

There are way too many pitfalls inherent in elopement packages–more than we can go into in this article. But other than “caveat emptor,” there are some things you should be on the lookout for:

If the price is too good to be true–trust me–it is. You’ll either find yourself shelling out for “upgrades” or find out down the road that some vital pieces are missing (like an officiant!). I’m amazed at how many inns offer “elopement packages” that are really nothing more than a night’s lodging, use of the grounds as a ceremony venue, a bottle of sparkling wine and some rose petals strewn about the bed for good measure. That’s a night of romance, NOT an elopement wedding package. An elopement package is supposed to have everything you need to get married, not have a romantic getaway with your significant other.

Ask about the qualifications of the person or business offering the package. Are they wedding pros specializing in small weddings? Or are their elopement packages an add-on to their “real” business? 

Look out for things that look like extras but in reality are just there to pump up the perceived value of what you’re getting. For example, professional-quality photos are going to be more important to most couples than the “commemorative marriage certificate,” the “souvenir toasting glasses,” and the “keepsake gift.” Most of these things will end up getting tossed in your junk drawer (assuming you have room to cram them into your suitcase for the flight home).

Always check the photography portion of the package. This also applies if you’re booking an elopement photographer on your own. Ask the following questions: Is it a professional photographer using professional equipment? (Hint: the officiant’s spouse with a point & shoot is NOT a professional photographer.) Does the photography fee cover the shooting time as well as full usage rights to the images? (Many photographers will give you an inexpensive rate and forget to tell you that the images remain their personal property and you have to order prints from them. All you’ll get are some low resolution images with the photographer’s watermark splashed across them.)

Things to know about eloping on the California coast

3. You need to get your marriage license in the state where you’re getting married, NOT the state where you live.

With only a few exceptions, ceremonies must be performed in the state where the license is issued. So be sure to allow enough time to obtain a license in your destination state. Also, many states have mandatory waiting periods between the date you apply for a license and the day of the ceremony. You need to know this before you show up and find out that your marriage isn’t going to be valid because you didn’t allow enough time. 

Bear in mind that marriage licenses are issued by government offices–meaning they’re most often closed on holidays and weekends. Plan to fly in on Friday night, marry on Saturday and leave on Sunday? Probably not.

Couple eloping by a lake in Colorado

4. If you’re planning on getting married outdoors (as most eloping couples do), plan on having a backup indoor location

Yes, we want our dream wedding exactly as we envision it and don’t like to think about a Plan B. And yes, most eloping couples don’t even want to think about wedding planning. But we can’t always rely on Mother Nature to cooperate. And there are pesky things like road closures, government shutdowns (goodbye, national park site), unforeseen public events and a whole host of other possible glitches that may require you to have a fallback plan.

For most eloping couples, the indoor backup location is their lodging. That way, you’re not paying for something you may not use. Bear this in mind when you’re booking your accommodations. Choose a hotel suite with a fireplace or lovely view, a cabin, an inn/B&B with a pretty parlor or covered patio, a vacation home rental or even a hotel room with a covered balcony. Anything so that you’re not getting married at the foot of the bed in a Motel 6 should it pour rain on your wedding day!

Two brides eloping in the redwoods

5. And speaking of venues–not all public sites are free to have a wedding

This is the eloping couple’s biggest mistake, in my experience. They think that they can show up at any beach, park, or mountain and because it’s a public area, they are allowed to have a wedding there for free.

While this may be true, it’s not always true, and the difference can make or break your wedding day. Nothing like having a park ranger interrupt your “I do’s” asking to see your wedding permit. “My what? Whoops! No one told me I needed one of those!”

Almost all federally-governed lands (like National Parks) require a permit. Yes, even for a 2-person wedding. Many state parks and state-managed beaches will require you to obtain a permit. Your best chance of avoiding the permit fee is to concentrate on city- and county-managed parks. But even these can sometimes have permit requirements.

The other thing to bear in mind about permits is that they don’t grant you exclusive rights to the site; all they do is ensure that no other events will be scheduled at the site on the same date and time as your wedding. So getting a permit for your romantic beach elopement does not mean you can stop a beach-goer from traipsing through your ceremony site playing fetch with their golden retriever. (However, we have found that most folks are very respectful when they see a wedding going on and will throw Rover’s tennis ball in the opposite direction.)

If total privacy is your aim, then you’ll want to look at private gardens, etc. that you can reserve and legitimately (tactfully and graciously) indicate that members of the public should steer clear.

Lakeside elopement in Colorado

6. Eloping outside of the United States can be a nightmare

If you think it’s tough coordinating logistics for a destination wedding when you speak the same language as the elopement package-offerer, imagine navigating the marriage laws of another country when you don’t speak their language. If you have your heart set on getting married on the beach in Mexico or Tahiti, consider taking care of the legal part of things in the United States and having the non-legal ceremony and festivities part of things in the foreign country. At least then, you’ll know your marriage will be recognized worldwide after all is said and done.

Conversely, eloping in the U.S. for couples coming from other countries is a piece of cake. Getting a marriage license in the United States is a very simple process for non-U.S. citizens.

Two grooms - Colorado elopement

7. Many wedding vendors don’t like doing elopements

Let’s face it, it takes a lot of one-hour elopement wedding fees to equal the rate that a photographer gets for an 8-hour wed-a-palooza! And a florist would much rather get an order for six bouquets with matching boutonnieres, some parental corsages, a flower girl basket and centerpieces for ten tables than a request for a simple bouquet and a matching boutonniere for the eloping couple.

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many wedding professionals aren’t interested in working elopement weddings. Which often leaves a couple with the….errr…..uhhh…shall we say “somewhat less than professional” leftovers. This can make the eloping couple feel as though their wedding is little more than an afterthought–or worse–an inconvenience.

You can find wedding vendors that not only love, but specialize in small weddings. Some of us just love the intimacy, the lack of stress and the upbeat atmosphere that is synonymous with elopements.  Sure, they pay less, but it’s not always about the money. However, you should plan to do a bit of digging or (shameless plug warning!) use a service like ours that only works with professionals that love elopements if you want the same quality of services as couples throwing a wedding in the $25,000 + category. 

Couple eloping in a Colorado forest

8. Planning a wedding–even a small one–from a distance can be a major challenge

If you’ve read this far, you know it’s not about making a few phone calls, finding a great team of wedding professionals and showing up on the beach expecting the picture-perfect elopement. It’s not that easy to plan a wedding from afar, especially if you’ve never been to your desired elopement destination. One way or another, find yourself a local to help you scout out locations, get the skinny on wedding permits and give you insider knowledge on what their area is really like at certain times of the year.

Couple kissing on a bridge - California elopement

9. The Number One Challenge for eloping couples is finding a venue for their ceremony

(You’d think the biggest challenge would be finding the right person to marry, but nooooooo!) Elopement ceremony venues by and large aren’t marketed as such, so it can be really challenging to find them, let alone research them to see if they resonate with your vision. Pictures on the Internet can be misleading. They’re always photographed in the most flattering way, and let’s face it, things are not always as they are Photoshopped.

If you can’t make the trip beforehand to scope out venues, and you don’t have a local resource, your next best bet might be to try and find online reviews like TripAdvisor or Yelp.

Bride placing ring on groom's finger - California elopement

10. You don’t know what you don’t know

Getting married isn’t something you do every day–or even every year or every decade (unless you are very fickle…or a Kardashian). To coin a phrase used by one of our favorite brides, “you’re supposed to be wedding-naive!” Eloping is one of those situations where you truly don’t know what you don’t know, so often the best you can do is stumble through asking questions like “how much do you charge?” and “how do we get a marriage license?” and hope to heaven that the person you’re speaking to is experienced enough (and cares enough) to answer your unasked questions.

Alternatively, you can work with an experienced elopement wedding provider (like us!) that has the knowledge and the foresight to help you ward off wedding day pitfalls. Having a true professional in your corner is invaluable if you don’t want any wedding day regrets. At the end of the day (besides being legally married, of course), you want a stress-free experience, a breathtaking venue, a day filled with laughter and romance, a lifetime of memories, and knock-your-socks off photos to commemorate your special day.