How To Plan An Elopement - 5 Step Elopement Planning Guide
There are five steps to planning your elopement. As for how much time the process of planning your elopement will take, we’ve had couples plan their elopements in just a week or two years, but the average time is six to nine months. The process outlined here isn’t a direct step-by-step guide but will give you a good place to start. Much like climbing most mountains, there are many ways to the top.
Step 1: Dream and Brainstorm
When you have the whole world to choose from for your adventurous elopement, it can be an overwhelming place to start. For this stage, sit down with your partner, preferably during a date night with your favorite beverage in hand so you’re most relaxed, and imagine your perfect day from start to finish. Of course, at some point during the day, you’ll say your vows to each other in an amazing place but the day you get married should be amazing from start to finish.
This stage isn’t about getting bogged down in details, what’s possible or not, or what’s realistic. It’s ok to keep your ideas vague and if you’re not sure whether this day could actually be possible.
To help yourself plan, use Pinterest, travel guides, books, Google Earth Pro or maps.
Your overall goal is to land on a date and general area of the world. You should know some parameters that you can start researching. For example: “We REALLY want to do a helicopter elopement, so let’s focus our research on where that would be possible in Step 2.” or “We really want a magical forest location that’s also near a beach - and we have to eat tacos.”
Consider the following:
What does the scenery look like? Are you at the mountains, in the desert, on a cliff, in a forest, in front of a waterfall or on the beach?
What season is it? Do you enjoy cold or hot weather better?
What do you want to wear that day? A dress or suit? Something more casual? Are you wearing shoes - or not?
What activities do you see yourselves doing? These can be activities that you enjoy doing together often or ones you’ve never tried before. Maybe a helicopter ride? Something in the water like kayaking, canoeing, stand up paddle boarding, or scuba diving? Or a seasonal activity like mountain biking or skiing?
Is food and drink involved in the day?
Are you alone together on this day? Or do you have friends and families with you? This will help determine any permits you will need or accessibility concerns. Maybe you have furry friends with you? This will mean looking for a pet friendly location in Stage 2.
What does the ceremony look like? Are there important cultural or religious traditions you’d like to incorporate into the ceremony?
What is the overall meaning and intention of your day?
How much time are you able to use for the trip? Is the elopement day part of a larger trip or combined with your honeymoon? How much time off of work are you able to take off?
Do you have a version of what the day looks like now? However fuzzy it is, that’s a great place to start! This stage is where most couples choose to contact us as elopement photographers and guides. We help with the rest of the planning process. If you don’t have an experienced and knowledgeable photographer that’s able to help you with logistics, consider hiring a local wedding planner to help you. There are elopement planners that can help you!
Step 2: Research
This is the nitty gritty, where you really start to dig in and find all the details.
Marriage laws vary by state and country. You’ll want to make sure you can legally get married, wherever you’re planning to do it, and you’ll need to know what paperwork you’ll need before and after. The process can vary as well and you may need an officiant or witnesses (or not!)
Check for when the best weather is at the location you’re looking at. Some locations have a high season or a low season which can impact how busy or secluded an elopement location is and can also affect the pricing changes. Look at seasonal road and transportation closures or changes that might impact your day. Check for natural phenomenon like fire, flood, or landslides. Instagram’s location feature can be very helpful for this. How many backup locations are available near where you’ll be? Are you willing to roll with bad weather or do you need a backup plan?
What sort of passport or visa are required to visit the locations? Are there permits, rules or regulations for the location? How long will it take to obtain all the necessary paperwork?
What wedding details are important to you? Are you wearing a dress or suit? Where will you change into your outfits? What other clothing items will you need, like additional layers of clothing or special shoes? Can you get dressed by yourself or will you need help? Is your photographer willing to help you, or your partner? Is a bouquet important to you? Can you get one at your location or do you need to get one before you go? How long will your bouquet last? Are there eco-friendly or alternative bouquet options for you?
Do you want to do a first look? A first look can still be done with an elopement but does require additional planning. Where will you get ready so you are separate? Will you need a cabin or hotel with 2 rooms? Will you need two cars to get to your location so you don’t see each other?
What other celebratory activities would you like to do during the day? Do you want confetti, champagne, or sparklers? What kind of confetti will leave no trace at your location? Is there an eco-friendly alternative? Can you have sparklers at your location? Some locations do not permit fire so make sure you know in advance. Do you want music during the day? How will you play the music? Are you allowed to play music at your chosen elopement location?
What is your total elopement budget? The national average for a traditional wedding is $33,000 but you can elope for less than half of that. Expect to spend 50-80% of your budget on photography and the rest on travel, attire (like your dress and suit,) rings, flowers, hair & makeup, an officiant, food, activities, and a marriage license. Think of your elopement like a fun trip, with a few wedding typical activities thrown in.
Step 3: Make Some Choices and Start Booking
Now that you’ve decided what’s important to you and done your research, it’s time to start booking.
First, pick your date. Is there a meaningful date for the two of you as part of your relationship? Is there a difference between a weekday or weekend date?
Pick your ceremony spot. This can still be spontaneous and decided day of, you just need to know the general area.
Find and book lodging near your ceremony spot. Check VRBO, Airbnb, Hotels.com or even Google to find unique lodging. Then book your transportation, like airfare and rental cars. Will any of your locations potentially require a 4WD vehicle? Are you comfortable with 4WD roads? If not, look at hiring a professional 4WD company.
How will you tell your family about your elopement ceremony? See a full list of ways to share with your friends and family here. You can also choose to have your family and friends involved in the elopement planning process. They can throw an engagement party, a shower, or a reception, party or barbeque for you and your partner. Friends and family can also help you with dress shopping or planning. If they’re not a part of the actual day, invite them to be a part of your trip but not the day or invite them to write letters. Alternatively - DON’T involve your family! It’s totally up to you!
Step 4: Finalize Your Details
Download our elopement planning checklist to make sure you have all the details finalized.
Make sure you have clothing finalized. Know that most bridal shops can be really intense about their timelines and suggest shopping 6-12 months in advance with 3 fittings before your elopement day.
Finalize your vendors. If you don’t have one already, book your photographer, hair stylist, makeup artist, florist, private chef, or musicians. You’ll also want to book an officiant if required for your ceremony.
For any activities you plan to do during your elopement day, make sure you have them booked and all the details finalized. Do you need the help of a helicopter pilot, bush plane, sailboat captain or sherpa? Make sure all of that is finalized ahead of time.
Develop a initial timeline for your day. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time for a relaxed day with no rushing or stressing. Look at what time of day will be best for photos, making sure to give yourself a lot of time. You’ll also want to include time for eating and drinking!
For your ceremony, plan your ceremony structure, including any readings or cultural or religious pieces. You’ll also want to write your vows, gather any sacred objects that you’ll need, and plan your wedding rings. We think it’s great to plan a surprise for your partner, either a gift or something special during the ceremony like reading letters from family members or playing a special song.
The week before your elopement ceremony, get ready for your trip. Pack in advance, making sure you have your rings, vows, all clothing (including accessories, shoes, jewelry and mementos) and any gifts, letters or surprise. Make sure you finalize any payments to your vendors and have a plan for how to tip them. Pick up your marriage license and any name change documents, if required. Check the weather and determine if you’ll need a backup location.
When you arrive at your destination, help your body acclimate so you can have the most enjoyable elopement day by getting good sleep, eating well, drinking lots of water and taking care of your body.
The day before your ceremony, relax, take it easy and make sure you go to bed early. You have an important day!
Step 5: Have the best elopement day!
During your elopement day, make sure you soak in each moment. Be present with your partner and let your emotions fly. Enjoy your relaxed timeline and don’t worry about how you look. Enjoy the time spent together. If you have a great experience together, you’ll get great photos together.
When you return, tell your friends and family if you haven’t already. See if your photographer will share a sneak peek of a small batch of images with you so you can show your friends and family what the day was like. Have a party, barbeque, dinner or informal reception surrounded by your loved ones to celebrate the fact that you’re married!
Finally, relive the experience over and over again. Make sure you order an album from your photographer so you can view the whole story of your day. Print your photos and put them around your home so you’re always surrounded by the great memories.
We're Maddie Mae, Amber, & Tori. We are adventurous elopement photographers & guides based in Colorado that travel worldwide to help fearless couples like you create your unforgettable, wildly different wedding experience—that is completely yours.
Are You Ready to Create Your Own Adventurous Elopement?
If you would like help dreaming up your intimate wedding day, a customized elopement location idea list just for you, planning tools, vendor recommendations, and a creative, laid-back, documentary approach to your adventurous wedding photography—we would love to help you make your adventure elopement dreams come true.