Planning your Elopement
“I don’t know where to start!” is the semi-frantic comment I hear from couples that are in the beginning stages of planning their elopement. I totally get it. Even though you’ve made the decision to forego the drama and expense of a big wedding, it doesn’t mean your simplified wedding is going to plan itself! The options can be overwhelming and you can quickly feel like a deer in the headlights–especially if other people start offering you “helpful” advice.
Okay, so you’re newly engaged and know you want to elope. Now what?
For purposes of this article, when we refer to “planning your elopement,” we’re talking about a true elopement: probably just the two of you, but at most just a handful of guests. Planning a micro-wedding is a whole other article. And we’re going to assume you and your Sweetie are going to travel some distance from where you live to elope. If you’re just going to pop by the local courthouse to tie the knot after work on a Tuesday afternoon, you can skip this how-to.
The first tip is the most important!
If you don’t have a clue about how you want your elopement to look, DON’T ask anyone else for advice.
It’s tempting to turn to friends, family and the Internet when you don’t know where to begin. This is probably not a good idea. Everyone will have an opinion. They will want to share their opinions ad nauseum. They will be emphatic about the best way for you to elope. No two opinions will be the same. You will get a headache and decide to stay single.
Seriously, well-meaning friends and strangers will do nothing but muddle your brain. Their ideas may not reflect your style or your values. What was best for their wedding is probably not what’s best for yours.
If you’re feeling at all conflicted or overwhelmed about how to elope, the best thing you can do, at first, is to keep the decision between the two of you. Resist the urge to seek counsel from others. Sit with the idea for a few days or weeks. Discuss your thoughts with each other. As you brainstorm ideas of where, how and when, you’ll eventually flush out the details. Then you can present them to your friends and family as a fait accompli (that’s French for “it’s a done deal, people!”).
Discuss your vision with your partner
Remember that you don’t have to decide everything right away. Breaking things down into manageable chunks will keep the stress at bay. Start with the big picture and worry about the logistics later.
- What’s your budget? How much can you reasonably afford to spend?
- Do you want any guests or will it be just the two of you?
- Location, location, location! Have you always wanted to visit the redwoods of California together? Does a boho-style beach wedding sound like the ideal place to begin your married life together? together? Is a mountain backdrop more your thing? Are you envisioning a hike to a waterfall with no one else around? Vegas? Mexico? A dramatic cliff overlooking the Pacific in Big Sur?
- Timing. How long will you be in the area? Are you making a honeymoon out of your elopement or will it be just a couple of days? Are you driving, flying or taking a romantic train excursion? Do you want a relatively high certainty of warm, dry weather or are you adventurous enough to plan a winter elopement in the snow? When can you get time off from work? The other question about timing is relative to your budget. If the elopement you’re planning is going to cost more than you have right now–and you don’t want to go into debt to pay for it–perhaps you need to wait a bit longer to save up.
Once you make decisions about number of guests, time of year and general location, then you can share your plans with others. There will still be opinions, but hopefully, you’ll feel confident enough with your vision that you won’t be swayed. Don’t allow other people to make you second guess yourselves.
Refine your budget
Yes, I know I listed determining your budget as Step One of the process. However, I’m assuming that you don’t plan a wedding every day of the week and it’s likely you don’t have a clue about how much an elopement costs. This is where the professionals come in–as well as other couples who’ve eloped. There are many Facebook groups designed to help you plan an elopement and other couples who are further along in the elopement-planning process will be happy to share their experiences and what they paid for things.
You’ll need to budget for the following:
- All your wedding vendors. At minimum, probably an officiant and photographer, but you might also consider flowers, bridal hair and makeup, a videographer, and a planner (who should also be able to assist you with finding the perfect place to elope).
- Venue fee or permit.
- Travel expenses.
- Lodging and meals.
- Car rental.
- Your wedding attire.
- Your marriage license (fees vary by state).
- Entertainment (for things to do on your vacation when you’re not busy eloping)
Get an idea of a ballpark ranges for each of the above, tally them up, and then add another 15-20% percent because there are always going to be more expenses than you think. Use this information to potentially tweak the decisions you made in Step One. Do you have to elope closer to home? Eliminate guests? DIY some services?
One thing I’d advise you to not scrimp on is photography. If the cost of professional photo services puts you over your budget, then cut back on the amount of photography time before you compromise on photo quality. I can’t tell you how much high-quality photographs of your elopement are going to mean to you afterwards. That’s the only thing you’re going to have to show to the friends and family that weren’t invited–you want the images to perfectly reflect the joy and beauty of your special day. This is not the time to to bring along a friend that’s “good with a camera,” or hire a cut-rate, photographer wannabe.
I’m appalled by what passes for “professional” photography these days. Granted, I’m married to the pickiest photographer on the planet, and he has trained me on what to look for when scrutinizing images of someone’s wedding. But the dreck that supposedly “professional photographers” try to pass off is appalling. Check Google reviews, ask around (this is one of those times where you should seek out opinions), and check to see if your venue offers a preferred vendor list. (Note: repeat this same process if you also plan to hire a videographer.)
Start doing some serious research
Now is when you’ll want to decide whether or not you’re going to go it on your own, or hire a professional elopement company (like Blue Sky Elopements) to handle most things for you. The pros and cons of this would fill an entire post on its own, but the essence is this: nothing can take the place of a locally-based elopement expert when it comes to ensuring a stress-free elopement wedding day. They’re going to help you dodge pitfalls you’d never even think of. The only con is that it will cost you a bit more money. Then again, it may save you money in the long run if the planner saves you from making costly mistakes.
Bottom line is: if you can afford it, hire a professional. You’ll have zero regrets.
Book your venue
Choosing the specific site when you don’t live in the area can be daunting. It’s usually every couple’s most pressing concern when they begin the legwork of planning their elopement.
- Be selective in your choice of a location. You’ve chosen to have an intimate wedding that’s all about you, so the place where you choose to exchange your vows needs to feel right to you.
- Here’s an insider tip: don’t rely too heavily on Internet research to help you choose a venue. Those “Best Places to Elope in (fill in the blank)” articles are not going to reveal the little-known hidden gems that locals know of. There’s a reason for that. We want them to retain their hidden gem status! Tip: if you’re getting hitched in a place that you’re not familiar with, then consider investing in some professional location scouting. That’s going to be the easiest way to find the perfect-for-you place to elope. And make sure the person who is doing the scouting has firsthand knowledge of the area where you want to elope. If they’re not, they’re just using the same online resources that you can use on your own for free.
- And speaking of free–don’t assume your venue will be so. Just because it’s a public park doesn’t mean there is no permit (and a fee!). Some parks require a permit even for a couple-only elopement. Check the requirements of the site before you find your intimate elopement interrupted by a ticket-wielding park ranger! This is another area where hiring someone to navigate the bureaucracy of pulling permits is worth the investment. At Blue Sky Elopements, we obtain the permit for you as part of our elopement package. Even if the professional you choose won’t go that far, they should at least be able to point you in the right direction and give you the contact info of whomever is in charge of issuing permits. If you’re handling it on your own, allow plenty of time, because many permit-issuing offices are not known for their prompt communication.
- If you do opt for a permit-free, “just show up” venue, be aware of the potential pitfalls. While everything usually works out fine, just remember that this can be one of those situations where you get what you pay for. If you’re not paying to reserve a site, then no one owes you any communication about it. We’ve seen access roads close, unforeseen events (like a concert on the beach) scheduled there that the couple didn’t know about in advance, parking lots filled to overflowing and impromptu campsites set up right smack where the couple planned to say “I do.” Sure, the campsites are prohibited, but who’s going to get into it with illegal campers on their wedding day? Read my article on The Realities of getting Married at a Non-reserved Site for more info.
- Don’t even think about trying to get away without a permit at a site that requires one. And avoid working with any vendors that encourage you to try this. Not only is it a recipe for wedding-day disaster, it’s ethically wrong. The permit fee is a small price to pay to support the park and cover a fraction of their expenses for allowing you to get married there.
Book your vendors
Let me point out that even though I am listing the tasks necessary to plan an elopement in a sequential way, it’s not really a linear process. Some things have to be done quasi-simultaneously. Choosing the venue, booking vendors and setting up the time of day are all factors that are interdependent. Your photographer may advise you on the best time of day to get married at the venue you’ve chosen. Or the officiant you really like may not be available on your originally planned date. You may find out that a venue permit isn’t offered on a certain date, or they cost considerably more on weekends. Expect there to be a considerable amount of back and forth at this stage of the process (unless you hire us–then we’ll handle the back and forth for you!).
Choose the time of day you want to get married
You’ll want to be selective about your timing. This is where a knowledgeable photographer or planner is worth their fee! Consider the “golden hours” for the best photography light. What time of day do those thunderstorms tend to roll in? Want a sunrise or sunset wedding? Be sure to check local timing of these events or you might be getting married in the dark. Other things to consider in regards to time of day and possible glitches: rush hour traffic, local events like ball games or festivals, temporary road closures. And if you’re flying to your elopement wedding location, don’t plan to be married on the same day that you fly into town. Assume the plane will be delayed and arrive a day early.
Book your airfare and lodging.
Not much to elaborate on for this. You have to make arrangements to get where you’re going and where you’re going to stay once you arrive. For most people, that involves flying. Don’t assume you know the closest airport to fly into for your wedding venue. Ask your planner to advise you.
As far as lodging goes, if you’re planning an outdoor elopement, it would be a good idea to book lodging that can also serve as a backup ceremony venue in the event of really bad weather on your wedding day. A vacation rental with a gorgeous fireplace, a picture window that showcases a view, or has a covered patio is a great insurance policy. Odds are you won’t have to use it, but it goes a long way to ensuring peace of mind.
At this point–regardless of the order in which you’ve completed the tasks–you should have a date, time, venue, most of the professionals lined up for your elopement wedding, a way to get there and a place to stay. You can take a mini-breather. The hardest part is done. If you’ve hired an elopement planner/coordinator, they should take it from there in terms of letting you know what other things need to be done and when.
What if you haven’t hired a planner?
If you haven’t hired a planner, then you’ve got to arrange for any number of things. A good planner will know the things to bring up that you’d never even think to ask, so if you don’t have that tool in your wedding planning toolbox, you’re going to have to be hypervigilant so you don’t miss anything. I can’t list every possible thing that may go awry, but here are some common pitfalls:
It’s not over until the paperwork is signed.
Just because your vows are to be short ‘n sweet doesn’t mean there isn’t legal paperwork to contend with. Check the marriage license requirements in the area where you plan to elope. Do you have to be a resident of the state? Is there a waiting period to get the license after you apply? What documentation do you need to obtain a license? What are the days and hours of the government office where you must go to get your license and is an appointment necessary? Most of these offices are only open Monday through Friday during business hours, so you can’t fly in on a Saturday and be legally married on Sunday.
See if the state in which you’ll be getting married requires witnesses on the marriage license and arrange for them if they do.
Some states (like Colorado) don’t require witnesses. Some states (like California) require at one witness. And some states require two witnesses. Bear in mind, your photographer and/or videographer can be your legal witness. If you need another person, you can ask your officiant or photographer to bring someone along, or you can just wing it and ask a passer-by to serve as a witness.
Decide on your wedding attire.
You’re not married to a poufy white dress and a tux–although you can certainly go that route if you like. Many couples feel that having a nonconventional wedding means the sky’s the limit in terms of what they can wear. Just be sure you’re comfortable and dressed for the conditions. Plan on layers for winter weddings. Beach weddings can be windy, so maybe ditch the veil. And outdoor weddings of any kind will often have you walking over uneven ground so be sure to wear appropriate footwear for the conditions you’ll encounter.
If you’re flying to your elopement destination, decide how you’ll pack your dress. Will you trust it as checked baggage, or will that stress you out? If it’s going to be a carry on, make sure it won’t get all rumpled in the overhead compartment. Many airlines will hang up the dress for you, but you can’t guarantee that’ll be the case. You might invest in an inexpensive steamer to take along to get out the deepest wrinkles from your wedding attire.
Prepare a “what to pack” list.
In addition to items you’d bring along for any trip, plan on these essentials:
- clear umbrellas
- a sewing kit
- unscented bug spray (if you’re getting married in a wooded area)
- hand sanitizer
- face masks
- lip balm
- travel first aid kit
- cell phone charger
- photo identification to obtain your marriage license
Schedule your hair and makeup appointment at least four hours prior to ceremony start time.
No, that is not too early. Professional hair and makeup services can take up to two hours–more if you have extensions. (And speaking of extensions, if you plan to use them, you need to alert your stylist to that fact ahead of time.) If you want a pre-wedding day hair and makeup trial, schedule that ASAP.
Order your flowers a minimum of six weeks before your wedding.
A bouquet and/or boutonniere is generally enough floral décor for an elopement. Provide your florist with photos of what you’re envisioning (just one or two pictures please–don’t overwhelm and confuse your florist by sending over ten photos and expect them to figure out the look you’re aiming for).
Decide what you’ll do for your post-wedding celebration.
Even if you’re going very low key and informal, you’ll want some sort of post-ceremony celebration. It could be dinner at a fancy restaurant, a meal for two prepared by a personal chef at your place of lodging, beer and a bonfire on the beach, or a horse-drawn carriage ride (That’s what my hubby and I did after we tied the knot–and believe me, you haven’t lived until you pull up to an ATM with a “just married” sign on the back of your buggy!) I married a couple once that went back to their cabin, lit up a fire, changed into jammies and set about making pizza. (Not that I was invited, mind you–but that’s what they told me they planned to do.)
Having nothing planned for after you say “I do” is anti-climatic!
Be sure you know exactly where you’ll be meeting with your ceremony vendors on the wedding day.
Most outdoor locations don’t have a specific address and many may have more than one entrance. Oftentimes, cell phone service may be nonexistent. Don’t assume you know where you’ll be meeting your officiant and photographer. Get an exact map pin or have them meet you at your place of lodging and caravan over together to avoid getting lost. There’s nothing more stress-inducing than trying to track down your vendors on the day of the wedding when you or they end up in the wrong place.
Create a Day of Wedding Timeline to send to all your vendors.
That’s what the professionals do. And for good reason. It keeps everyone on the same page and ensures a smooth wedding-day experience.
Bring cash for impromptu romance opportunities.
Buying flowers from a street vendor, a spur of the moment carriage ride, tipping the passer by who just happens to pull out his guitar and serenade you (it happens!). On the other hand, you could always stop by an ATM… 😊😁😉