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Saying ‘I do’ in an exotic locale can save dough

Cameron Bradley had always dreamed of a big church wedding with  hundreds of guests. But when her fiance's salary was cut, they threw out tradition and opted for a "destination" wedding in Costa Rica. And they’re not alone.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Cameron Bradley had always dreamed of a big church wedding. She wanted a couple hundred guests and a reception at a country club with a band.

But when the economy tanked, and her fiance's salary was cut, she knew they couldn't afford that kind of wedding.

So they threw out tradition and opted for a “destination” wedding in Costa Rica.

“Cost is always an issue, and both of our jobs are experiencing some cutbacks,” said Bradley, of Washington, N.C.

Destination weddings, in exotic locales, have been increasingly popular in recent years. But many couples are now discovering that they can, surprisingly, be cheaper — if you go against tradition and shop for good deals.

“For sure, destination weddings are becoming more attractive due to the declining economy,” said Quentin Carmichael, marketing and sales manager for the Web site, which had an almost 10 percent increase in weddings under deposit this year compared to the same time last year. "It's more affordable than having a traditional wedding."

That may be hard to believe, but the big savings comes in trimming the guest list. The average number of guests attending a destination wedding is 47, compared to 165 for a traditional wedding, according to Michelle Panzer, publicist for Brides Magazine.

Most couples only pay for themselves to travel to the destination. That means guests must shell out their own money if they want to come, a sure way to keep the guest list small.

While the average cost of a wedding is $27,852, according to Brides Magazine, Carmichael said most couples spend less than $10,000 for a destination wedding, with a reception at home.

Most destination wedding packages are sold by U.S. companies, meaning couples aren't subject to fluctuations in foreign currency. Vendors at the destination often put their prices in U.S. dollars as well.

The top destination wedding spot is Mexico, with its numerous all-inclusive resorts, followed by Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Hawaii and the Bahamas, Carmichael said. (Hawaiian wedding planners, however, report a sharp decline in their business there this year.)

Las Vegas, known for its cheap, quickie weddings, doesn't seem to be feeling the economic pinch at its high-end wedding locations. Many guests find it easy and affordable to take a weekend trip to Vegas.

We're definitely seeing an increase in weddings,” said Maria Hirt, spokeswoman for the Four Seasons hotel in Las Vegas. She said couples are actually spending about 25 percent more than last year.

Lisa Light, a New York wedding planner, has coordinated million-dollar weddings for Wall Street clients, and even with the yo-yo stock market, says she is still booking weddings.

“I think that people are going to be looking more for the smaller, intimate wedding because they get the honeymoon and the wedding,” said Light, author of “Destination Bride” (North Light Books, 2005). “You book a room for five nights, the wedding is free. There are a lot of really great deals out there.”

Some couples wouldn't think of not marrying near home, however. So they're cutting guest lists, avoiding pricey Saturday ceremonies, shopping for bargains, and opting for do-it-yourself decorations and hairdos.

It took Audrey Belliard, 26, longer than she thought to find a job in New York City, and it doesn't pay as much as she would like. She is growing her own flowers, checking out discounted dresses, making decorations and asking for discounts for her July wedding in her native France.

“We don't want to look cheap, but we want to be really wise as far as how we spend that money,” she said.

Kristeen Nelson figured she'd invite 125 guests to her wedding and spend $25,000. Then the costs just kept racking up, and soon she and her fiance were up to $40,000. They had to look at cutting the guest list after Nelson, 30, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., quit her job over the summer and was unemployed for two months.

They ended up inviting 81 guests to their wedding last month and decided to marry at someone's house. For the honeymoon, she said, “We originally wanted to go to Italy. Now we're going to Aspen for three days and then Mexico for five.”

Bradley, 38, married on an August Monday in Costa Rica while a volcano exploded in the background during the vow exchange. Instead of a rehearsal dinner, the bride and her sister got massages. And in lieu of a reception, she and her husband dined in a bungalow on the edge of a rainforest.

“There was just no way we could have afforded to have the kind of wedding that I dreamed of having," she said. "But this was so much more. It turned out I had a new dream; it was just better.”