Is it too good to be true?

By Maya Kachroo-Levine
April 06, 2019
Miriam Morales/EyeEm/Getty Images

It’s no secret that weddings are expensive. The average cost of a wedding in 2018 was $33,931 (and that's before the honeymoon). If you opt for a destination wedding, you could end up spending even more than that, depending on your venue and the city. Weddings at French châteaus or Napa vineyards don’t necessarily come cheap.

On the flip side, you can find cheap destination wedding packages starting at less than $1,000. Regardless of your price point, the argument for a destination wedding is compelling. If your guests are going to spend money on a plane ticket anyway, why not have them come to Aruba instead of your hometown? A destination wedding gives you the opportunity to choose a place both you and your fiancé want to visit. And, a destination wedding can also be the perfect jumping off point for a romantic honeymoon.

If you’re looking into affordable destination weddings, you’re bound to come across one of the most intriguing trends for anyone trying to not spend a fortune on their nuptials: the free destination wedding. That’s right — there are some resorts that will throw in a wedding on the house to show their appreciation for your booking.

What to Know About Free Destination Weddings

The first rule of the free wedding club is that you need to be discerning about who you work with. You should have complete confidence in a brand if you’re going to use their free wedding service, and you should favor a place that is ready to go above and beyond for you. You don’t want a free wedding to be something that ends up causing you a lot of logistical stress — make sure you’re choosing a resort that will minimize your stress instead of increasing it

“Our aim to make it easy for a couple to travel here and then have absolutely everything taken care of for them,” said Filo Saunitoga, the wedding concierge at Namale Resort and Spa. The luxurious Fiji property offers a complimentary wedding package when you book seven nights or more. They say it’s a $999 value and includes your choice of venue, coordination by the wedding concierge, a wedding cake, and local flowers for the bride, among other things.

Saunitoga said that while their guests love taking advantage of the free wedding package, they also typically pay for add-ons. Add-ons are huge in the world of free weddings, to the extent that you may find your free wedding is more of a heavily discounted wedding, because personalized elements like music or high-end food choices come with additional costs.

At Namale, Saunitoga explained, their free wedding covers sparkling wine and a delicious meal for two. So while your secluded, tropical reception is complimentary, it’s only free for you and your new spouse. If you’re planning a 15-person elopement, you’ll still end up paying for meals and place settings for your guests. This is fairly typical for free weddings — you need to know about the add-on costs going in, and work with a hotel that’s completely transparent about what they charge for various services.

Consider the Add-ons

Debra Kasen, who plans tropical destination weddings at Romance Globe Travel, said that photography, a DJ or live music for the reception, and flowers can be some of the most costly add-ons, apart from food and drink for additional guests.

“When people see the [add-on] pricing, they sometimes look at outside vendors, though some resorts may charge an outside vendor fee (anywhere from $300 to $1,000 per vendor) or not allow outside vendors at all,” Kasen said.

While it seems like most clients end up adding to free wedding packages, there is still a lot to be said for getting a free venue and use of an on-site wedding planner, which is almost always included under the “free” umbrella. Complimentary wedding packages tend to come with perks before or after the wedding day, too. Saunitoga mentioned their package comes with a luncheon the next day in a remote Fijian location, for example. And if you book 20 room nights, you qualify for additional free services, like a couples massage the day after the wedding.

“In essence, the bigger the wedding, the more complimentary services,” said Saunitoga.

How to Get More Freebies

This seems to be a theme in the free destination wedding game; The resorts offer more free perks if you’re staying longer or bringing plenty of guests. When determining complimentary services to throw in, “the resort will be looking at total revenue earned from a group event,” said Kasen.

Kasen stressed that you really need to look out for your best interests, because some resorts are looking to create a stunning personal experience for their clients, while others are trying to make a buck. She said occasionally resorts will even charge guests more for rooms if they’re offering a free wedding — a practice you need to avoid. Do your due diligence when you’re planning the financials of your wedding: Make sure you’re only charged for previously agreed upon services and that your guests aren’t getting upcharged.

“I like to show [clients] how to max out the perks and have a long conversation with them about how if they change or even customize one petal on their bouquet, that all bets can be off and pricing [can] go up,” said Kasen.

If personalization is where you end up racking up a bill, opting for a less expensive but ultimately more generic wedding package might be costly, because you’ll end up spending more on add-ons. Saunitoga said one of the reasons couples are so impressed by Namale’s destination weddings is that they are focused on exclusivity, authenticity, and exceptionally personalized service.

“Couples receive a high-touch experience rather than a standardized wedding offering available at other destinations,” he explained.

So, the biggest asterisk on free weddings is that, unsurprisingly, you will still spend money. If you’re thinking of booking a free wedding, there are two choices. The first is to go with a luxury resort, where you won’t have to lift a finger once you arrive, but the exclusivity means you’ll pay a high premium to stay. If you choose a small luxury resort, the property will be more equipped to accommodate your requests and your wedding will feel tailormade to you and your spouse. However, you run the risk that some of your guests will be unable to attend because of the accommodation prices, so this route might be best for small weddings and elopements.

On the other hand, opting for a less expensive resort might mean you spend a little more on add-ons such that the ceremony and reception still complements you and your partner. The accommodations will be affordable, so you’re not asking as much of your guests, which allows you to have a bigger wedding. Also, some of the standard free wedding packages come with complimentary anniversary nights, so you can return and keep cashing in on perks long after your wedding day.

What Kasen and Saunitoga’s experience prove is that you shouldn’t pick your destination just based the free ceremony offering. Pick a venue you love, or choose a spot you’d want to spend a week in for your honeymoon, and then see if the free wedding package still suits your needs.