Destination weddings: blessing or burden?

(Josh Fletcher/ JOSH FLETCHER ) - HANDOUT IMAGE: Erin Williams and Andrew Page were married on April 24, 2010 in Hawaii. They are from Belvidere, IL. (Photo by Josh Fletcher)

(Josh Fletcher/ JOSH FLETCHER ) - HANDOUT IMAGE: Erin Williams and Andrew Page were married on April 24, 2010 in Hawaii. They are from Belvidere, IL. (Photo by Josh Fletcher)

To see her daughter marry, Ellen Stern would need more than a special dress and a stash of tissues. The Connecticut mother-of-the-bride, who had never traveled outside North America, would have to apply for her very first passport and fly to the Caribbean on her very first plane ride. As if she didn’t have enough to be nervous about.

“When they came up with Barbados, I was like . . . whaaaaa?” said Stern, whose daughter and son-in-law will celebrate their 10th anniversary next year. “It was kind of a shock. I expected the temple, the reception — the traditional wedding.”

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Wedding tradition long ago gave way to the modern reality of far-flung families and friends traveling long distances for that special day. But couples these days seem more willing than ever to push things further, rolling nuptials and honeymoon into one by hosting a destination wedding in a place where neither has ties.

To be sure, engagements and weddings have always been emotional, but now the tears could start months before the ceremony. Eyes may well up at the sight of an invitation that reads like a tourism brochure and is stamped with dollar signs.

“It’s an honor to be a guest, but it’s an expensive honor,” said Amy Eisinger, the New York-based editor of WeddingChannel.com. “You are going to have to make a few sacrifices to be part of their day.”

The trend has been spreading to other milestones as well, making it even more onerous for close friends who are expected to high-tail it to Vegas or Ocean City for bachelor/ette parties in the “Hangover” and “Bridesmaids” vein.

Nycole Klein, who will attend a Maine wedding in October, quails at the idea of destination anything, her opinion shaped by front-line experience. “It’s a lot to ask of your guests,” she stated, “especially the ones you really want there.”

The Northern Virginian, for instance, missed her best friend’s bridal shower in Oklahoma City because of budget constraints. “I didn’t do my maid-of-honor duties,” she lamented. She did make it for the nuptials, though. (They weren’t technically a destination wedding because the bride grew up there, but virtually everyone, including the betrothed couple, had to travel for it.) Once there, Klein spent a week sleeping in a hotel, shuttling folks around in a rental minivan, refitting the groomsmen for tuxedos and basically working her event-planner magic.

Fortunately, guests without a job title won’t have so many responsibilities to uphold — besides showing up. They can at least “treat it like a vacation,” said Eisinger, who next year plans to attend a bachelorette party on a cruise ship from Miami and a wedding in Key West. Her advice: “Try not to grumble about going to Jamaica.”

Or elsewhere in the Caribbean, Mexico or Hawaii — the most popular destination wedding spots, according to Eisinger. Also don’t be shocked if you end up in such top bachelor/ette destinations as Miami, Vegas and Puerto Rico. In fact, you might as well just keep your valise out: With multiple parts to a wedding, some couples double up on the destinations, hosting a party in one location and a wedding in another.

Amy Parizer, for one, was on a veritable tour for her engaged friend from childhood. Last month, the Baltimore-area resident headed to Ocean City for the bachelorette party. A few weeks later, she flew with her plus-one to the wedding in Orlando. Their kids — plus-two and -three — would stay behind; the family had visited Disney World the previous year, and the budget could not accommodate the whole posse. Not that Amy was distraught: “I’m going to make it a kind of long weekend away with my husband,” she said.

Why do couples choose a destination wedding, anyway? A 2009 report by WeddingChannel.com and the Knot, a wedding Web site, posed that question to 2,216 destination brides. More than 80 percent who married in a foreign land said they wanted a “special, fun or exotic locale.” But a nearly-as-high 72 percent said they preferred a “more intimate wedding/fewer guests/close friends.” In other words, throwing a destination wedding has become a kinder, gentler way of keeping boorish Uncle Lou away.

By marrying in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Ulla Gonzalez, who lives in northern New Jersey, knew that she could use the tribulations of travel to limit the number of invitees.

“We figured if we stayed in the U.S., Brett, not to offend anyone, would invite his large group of college friends,” she said of her husband of three years. “He still invited more than his closest, but the guest list was small at 30.”

The mother of the groom, however, did not care for this pruning strategy. “If we had the wedding around here, we could have had at least 125 people,” said Susan Myerson, who lives outside Boston. As a trade-off, she later threw a big reception on her home turf for those left off the list.

“The positive is that you can turn the wedding into your vacation,” she said. “And who wouldn’t want to go to Mexico?”

Well, not everybody. Or maybe they do but not during that time of the year. Or for that reason. Or at that specific resort. Or for that sum of money. Consider the comments by a fuming reader who took part in one of the Travel section’s recent online question-and-answer sessions:

“They are expensive and gawd one all-inclusive resort is just like another, with mediocre food and drinks,” the chatter wrote in. “My girlfriend and I can afford it, but we would rather use our hard-earned leave to go where we want to go in the Caribbean. Goldeneye, Pink Sands, Bitter End or Little Palm Island. Not a Beaches or a Sandals. Yech!”

Of course, those who object always have an out: They can RSVP a simple, polite no. But that’s not usually an option for a close friend.

“Personally, I’d rather go to an all-inclusive in the Dominican Republic,” said Klein, who must cash in three days of vacation time for the Maine wedding. “Come Christmas, I will probably have to take unpaid leave.”

To avoid imposing any burdens, Erin Williams surveyed her inner circle before committing to a wedding site. “We polled our friends and family on whether they’d prefer Hawaii or D.C.,” said the District resident, whose guests live all over the country. “The last thing we wanted was to create a hardship for the people we wanted at our wedding.”

By the end of her round of phone calls, she had the answer for her April 2010 nuptials, a “unanimous ‘yes’ ” to the Big Island.

“There were really no cons for us,” said Kristie Sullivan, a longtime friend of the couple’s who flew to Hawaii from San Francisco with her husband. “We are not luxury travel people; we enjoy camping and staying off the beaten path. But budget did have something to do with it.”

To save money, the Sullivans rented a cabin in a back yard for a few nights and camped the remainder of the time.

One might think that because of the outlay of funds and time, plus the petty annoyances of airline security, lost baggage, cold showers, etc., you can skip the gift. That, sorry to say, is bad etiquette.

“I love it when the couple says, ‘The present is your presence,’ ” said Anna Post, an etiquette author and spokeswoman of the Emily Post Institute. But unless otherwise noted on the invitation, “a small token for the house” is expected. In addition, Post reminds betrothed couples of their responsibility to cover — hang on to your wallets — the lodging costs of the wedding party (mainly the bridesmaids and groomsmen).

“People leave tradition by the wayside because of the expense involved,” she said. “But I really think you should stick with this one.”

For her own wedding, Klein considered the Dominican Republic but would have felt obliged to pay the travel costs of 10 friends and family members. The dollar signs were adding up. In addition, she worried about the day after the ceremony, when the guests moved on to the vacation portion of the wedding.

“We really didn’t want a group honeymoon,” she said.

The choice was clear. The couple will marry in the Washington area. Call it a staycation wedding.

 
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