Elopement Planning Checklist
A step-by-step guide to help you plan an epic day you’ll love.
Yay! You ditched the traditional wedding in favor for what’s true to you. Congratulations! But oh crap…how do you plan an elopement? There’s literally thousands of articles and blogs for planning your traditional wedding. Where’s all that stuff for eloping?!
Never fear, you’ve got this…and I’m here to make it a little easier.
Step 1: Pick your dream location.
Eloping is so awesome because it opens so many doors for locations you can pick to elope. It can be in nature, in the city, or even your backyard! Think about a place you absolutely love spending time at or a place on your bucket list. If you have a couple favorites, keep them all on the list for now! Once you touch base with a photographer, they’re probably going to give you additional insight into the locations you picked. Don’t pressure yourself to force only one location to work at this point unless it’s a place of personal significance.
Remember, this is really early in the process! Be open to location modifications if it would create a better elopement day for you.
Step 2: Pick a date.
There’s 3 things to consider when picking a date: weather, location popularity, and personal significance.
First off, weather. I’m based out of the Oregon Coast and it’s a rainy disaster all winter. Summer though, has wonderful 75 degree days and sun. The desert gets in the hundreds in the summer but it’s comfortable in the winter while everywhere else is bitterly cold. Beyond that, maybe you want fall leaves or snow. Obviously you’ll want to pick according to that. Having the weather you want on your day is so important to how comfortable you are.
Second, location popularity. This is another huge factor in how comfortable you are. Saying your private vows in front of 50 tourists isn’t exactly the intimate elopement experience you’re looking for. A great way to dodge the crowds? Weekdays. There’s a huge drop in people mid-week. Or you can shoot for an off season (weather depending). Picking a slow time of year will help you get the privacy you want for your day.
Last, consider any days that already have meaning and significance for you and your partner. My husband and I had the option of a couple weekends and we picked the one we did so we’d have an anniversary a day after my parent’s. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend picking an out-of-the-way date but it’s a good way to narrow down your options. Remember that your wedding anniversary will be an important date regardless of its prior significance.
Step 3: Set a budget.
Now that you have a date and location, you can start planning how much you want to spend. Obviously eloping in Hawaii or Europe is going to be a lot more expensive than eloping one state over from yours. There’s a delicate balance when you plan your budget. You don’t want to skimp because it is such an important day! But you also don’t want to start your lives together with strained finances and having to put other important things on the back burner.
The first thing I recommend: put some rough numbers together. Take an honest look at how much services cost and don’t just assume. Also make sure you look at actual numbers. I have not met anyone in real life that actually spent as much as the US wedding average. Relax, you don’t need to spend $30k to have an epic experience. On the other hand, don’t assume photography will be $500 when you have no background in photography costs (you will not enjoy the results of someone who charges that). Look at real people you could see yourself hiring, real flights for the right time of year, and actual activities you want to do. You don’t have to do an in-depth cost analysis of every potential vendor but you need an honest look at how much this stuff costs. Make a budget you’re comfortable with from there.
Now that you put all that work into your budget, I need ya to let it go a bit. You will not spend exactly $X on that service. Some will be more, some will be less. You will fall in love with a certain vendor and spend more on their services. You may find a good deal on your AirBNB and lose some costs. I recommend you use your budget as an outline and not a non-negotiable. This another delicate balance. Don’t throw your budget out the window as soon as planning starts but don’t miss out because something doesn’t fit your exact spreadsheet.
Bonus advice: This is for my fellow penny pinchers. Friends, be willing to spend the money. For my elopement, we spent a lot on a big AirBNB with direct beach access. We hosted all our guests there and had the ceremony right out front. It enabled our 80+ year old grandparents to easily come down the beach for the ceremony. We had a big family dinner at the place after. My whole side also stayed there leading up to the wedding. It had a huge room where all my bridesmaids basically had a big sleepover and my whole side of the family stayed there. I got to spend lots of quality time with all those people and have a streamlined elopement thanks to that investment. I promise you won’t regret spending money where it matters. Feel free to ditch any expense that won’t enhance your experience and put it towards what will help you have the best day ever.
Step 4: Hire your vendors.
It’s time to put the pedal to the metal and start committing to this day. This is where stuff gets overwhelming but I promise you’ll get through.
But who the heck do I hire first?!
For me personally, it was a photographer. Obviously, as a photographer myself, this was a huge deal for me. Who you hire first depends on what’s most important to you. If you want a physical venue, you probably want to start there. If you want a certain photographer, you may want to pick a date they’re available and go from there.
I’m going to be a bit biased here and recommend you also start with your photographer. For an elopement specifically, photographers play a totally different role. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend you start at photographer if you were having a typical, traditional wedding. As an elopement photographer, I fully intend to help you pick the perfect place, give you guidance on where to stay (especially in terms of quality of photos there), plan your timeline, find local activities, and recommend other vendors. I’m definitely not the only elopement photographer like this so I recommend you utilize our expertise and insight before you try to figure it out by yourself.
Here’s some advice for hiring your vendors:
Make sure you click with them. Personalities make a big difference especially if they’re present for the elopement itself. All personalities are in the business so take the time to find someone that will enhance your day.
Invest where it matters. If florals are huge for you, invest in a great florist. If photos are essential, invest your money there. Maybe catering isn’t as big for you so you decide to roast hot dogs and marshmallows over a fire at the end of your day.
Ask your other hires about recommendations. If you’re in the elopement industry, you work with other professionals in the same field. We can bring hands-on experience about who we think you could work well with.
Get into the details. Friends, we’re currently surviving COVID. I’ve heard horror stories from clients losing deposits but also the vendors of the wedding industry losing every penny of their income this year except for the deposits. This has made the importance of good contracts and clear business deals even more obvious. Ask your vendor what EXACTLY you’ll be getting. How many photos? How long do we have the venue? Any other questions to clarify exactly what service you’re receiving. Signing contracts may sound scary but trust me, you want to sign them. It’s the sign of a clear deal and a good business. Discuss the deposits and what happens if you have to cancel. We try to clarify as much as we can but sometimes we forget stuff because we’re so familiar with the industry standards. Things like non-refundable deposits are the norm and I’d rather you 100% understand it before we’re in a situation where you want that deposit back. It will be an easier process for both of us if we dive into the details before stuff happens.
Step 5: Start finalizing everything.
If you’ve gone with a typical elopement photographer, they’ve helped you plan a schedule for the day, select your location, and guided you through the process of hiring vendors. Get your reservations done, put your deposits down, and communicate lots with your team of vendors. Here’s some tips to finish this process strong and create a plan that will lead to an awesome elopement day.
Communicate with your vendors. A lot. Update them on relevant details, keep them posted on changes, and respond to their messages/emails as soon as you can. Make sure you communicate who all is working your event so we can coordinate and work together cohesively on your day. Communication is key for a smooth elopement day. This also means the vendors you hire should be good at communicating too! If it takes them 2 weeks to respond to every email you’ve sent, you may want to find another vendor. (Bonus advice: tell a vendor if you hired someone else. We don’t like being ghosted either and we promise we won’t get mad.)
Keep track of your budget. Actually track what you spend and plan accordingly (while also not sacrificing your dream wedding). But when the actual day or maybe even week arrives, leave the budget at home. Don’t stress about your budget day of and just enjoy your day. Don’t worry about a small extra charge or small change. If you stick to your budget the other 9 months of planning, you’ll be fine.
Don’t stress about every tiny detail. Your wedding day will be perfect regardless of how it ends. You’re marrying your best friend and starting life together. It doesn’t get much better than that even if there’s a massive storm the day of your wedding or you ruin your wedding cake on the hike. Plan thoroughly but it also doesn’t matter if your bouquet is one shade of blue different than planned. Setting this tone early in your planning will also help you be calm the day of.
Enjoy the process! You only get to do this once. Fill your day with what fills your soul and try to find the good in the planning. It’s definitely stressful but it’s a fun journey that gets you excited for marrying your best friend.