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Destination weddings: A way to save money

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Guests attending Michelle and Mike Tropea's wedding on the Mayan Riviera, Mexico. (Courtesy of Michelle Tropea)

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Michelle and Mike Tropea on the beaches of Playa del Carmen, shortly after getting married. (Courtesy of Michelle Tropea)

While planning their wedding in 2005, Rita and Daniel Magee just couldn’t stay within their budget. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden venue was going to cost $25,000 alone, and it didn’t include all the niceties that they always wanted for their reception.

After months of headaches and penny-counting estimates, the New York elementary teacher and cop made a radical decision: they moved the wedding to Puerto Rico. That May, they jumped on a plane—followed by 60 immediate family and friends—and got married on the Caribbean Sea, saving a third of their original estimate.

“We were at a diner and Daniel was freaking out about money,” said Rita Magee, 31, recalling the moment in which they decided to move their nuptials overseas. Her husband added: “I was literally supposed to save a check every week. I didn’t want to do that.”

More and more U.S. couples are deciding on a destination wedding these days. Paradoxically, it’s often cheaper to fly to a distant land than hold the celebration locally. In spite of the economic crisis, most guests apparently are happy to oblige: this way they get a family vacation they otherwise would not have planned.

“It is an economic factor,” said Kyle Brown, the executive director of the Bridal Association of America. “People can have a local wedding with 200 guests, or they can fly away with 20 of their closest friends and have a much nicer wedding on the beach.”

Brown says that destination weddings can cost up to half of the average local celebration, as couples can expect to pay 41 percent less on reception costs alone. According to his organization, destination weddings today account for 16 percent of the 2.3 million American weddings each year, and are projected to double in the next five years.

“You invite less people, it’s less formal and it ends up being your honeymoon,” said Daniel Magee, 30, pointing out that many of their guests stayed in Puerto Rico for a few days after the celebration. The Magees spent $35,000 for their wedding. In New York, they say, it would have cost more than $50,000.

Travel expenses often constitute the main cost of a destination wedding. But once airfare is taken care of, the rest of the celebration is comparatively cheaper than at home, thanks to special deals that many resorts and tour operators offer. In some cases, the reception is included with the honeymoon suite.

“Once you’re abroad, there isn’t a huge cost to bring the wedding together,” said Kim Guse, a certified destination wedding planner based in Mequon, Wis. Her organization’s Web site, Wedding and Honeymoon Experts.com, offers special deals and guidance for couples who want to get married abroad.

All-inclusive resorts, Guse says, are the most popular solution for destination weddings because of the variety of packages that the bride and groom can choose from. Furthermore, as food and beverages are included with the stay, the guests end up paying for their own refreshments, reducing receptions costs significantly.

In addition to lower costs and exotic locations, destination weddings give couples a chance to do what many brides and grooms always dreamed of: shrinking their guest lists without guilt.

By moving the celebration overseas, couples can easily get away with sending out fewer invitations and can happily expect defections from the invitees.

Take Michelle Tropea, who married her husband, Mike, last November on the Mayan Riviera near Playa del Carmen, Mexico. She initially sent out 75 invitations to family and friends, but only 29 guests actually attended the event.

“We didn’t want a big wedding to begin with,” said Tropea, a 28-year-old recruiter from suburban Chicago. “If we were to have it here, we would have had to invite everybody.”

The Tropeas —who spent $16,000, half of their Chicago wedding estimate —started planning their Mexico celebration 18 months in advance. They kept their immediate family and some friends constantly updated so that they could plan their trip. However, they consciously decided not to include their extended family in this part of the process. “We didn’t want to have too many opinions about it,” Michelle Tropea said.

Although some of the invitees who didn’t make it to the wedding complained about the decision, the newlyweds say that they wouldn’t do anything different today.

“It was what we wanted and could afford to do,” Michelle Tropea said. “We have no regrets for choosing a destination wedding.”

Just like the Tropeas, Yael Oksenberg will marry her fiancé, John Markley, in Mexico next May. In addition to the economic and guest list factors, the betrothed —who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, both working as managers with Stanford University School of Medicine —chose a destination wedding because they will get quality time with their 32 guests.

“So rarely you get to do that easily,” Oksenberg, 27, said. “You have friends and family all over the world and you’re never able to spend extra time with them.”

Sharing Oksenberg’s opinion, Daniel Magee thinks that destination weddings allow couples to make the best out of it. “You can spend all that money for six hours, or go abroad and have a party that lasts six days,” he said. “Nobody forgets these weddings.”

E-mail: dp2421@columbia.edu