Updated February 23, 2021
Ten years ago eloping meant running off to the courthouse, saying your vows in front of the judge (or maybe Elvis in Vegas …) and calling it a day. The definition has changed SIGNIFICANTLY in the last several years and couples these days have so many options! This is a good thing but it also makes things a little more challenging. This guide to how to elope will hopefully get you started to your perfect elopement day!
What does it mean to “elope” today?
Long gone are the days when eloping meant making a hasty, last minute decision to get married at the courthouse. While many people still do this, modern elopements are more like super laid-back weddings … with ZERO guests.
Even Merriam-Webster is beginning to recognize that the definition of what it means to elope is shifting. “Elope‘s meaning is shifting towards “a small destination wedding” whereas it used to mean “to runaway and secretly get married,” and before that “for a married woman to runaway with a new lover,” (Read more about the changing definition of elopement here).
What used to be thought of as a rushed and secretive race to marriage is now something completely different.
What is an Elopement?
A Chance to Start Your Marriage in a Truly Personal Way
Talk to anyone who has planned a large traditional wedding and they will tell you that they quickly learned that weddings are not always about the couple themselves as much as they are about what everyone else wants. For some people that’s totally fine but for others, they want to begin their married life in a way that feels much more personal. An elopement is a way to do that.
A Destination Wedding with Zero (or very few) Guests
I always encourage my couples to think BIGGER about their elopement day. More than anything else, a wedding is about … getting married. And that is exactly what you do when you elope – you just do it in a very different way. Your elopement still deserves thought and planning and personal touches that make it feel like YOU.
A Start of Your Married Life on YOUR Terms
I’m a big believer that the way we start something sets the tone for the long term. This is your chance to assert your independence and begin your marriage YOUR way.
Sound awesome? For many couples, it is! Let’s talk about how you might know that an elopement is right for you ….
Should You Elope?
You don’t like being the center of attention
This is one of the top reasons I hear from my couples on why they decided to elope. Getting married is a BIG deal and very personal decision and a lot of couples don’t want to do it in front of a couple hundred people. If you hate having a fuss made over you, want to be able to say PERSONAL vows to your person without everyone hearing, and generally feel like having a crowd at your wedding will take away from the moment, an elopement may be right for you!
You want to get married in an exotic place and don’t want to make your friends and family travel
95% of my couples plan destination elopements and many of them tell me that they didn’t want to force their friends and family to travel to their location. Eloping makes a destination wedding a no brainer!
You want to spend your money on the things that matter to YOU.
While the cost of weddings vary widely depending on location and the level of posh-ness of the whole affair, the average cost of a wedding in the U.S. in 2019 was around $30,000. And I can tell you from experience that if you are having a wedding with over 100 guests, that money is NOT going to go very far. Many of the larger weddings I have shot have been north of $100k.
Here’s the cool thing though: If you take HALF of the budget of an average, not super fancy, wedding and put it towards an elopement you can have something seriously freaking awesome. While $15k may get you not a whole lot for a traditional wedding that same amount of money will get you a super badass elopement, in a dream location, with your dream photographer, dream dress, dream everything! Invest in what MATTERS to you!
Even Forbes agrees that eloping is a wise decision!
You just generally feel out of place in the wedding world
Oh, friend. I HEAR YOU. When we planned our wedding I remember feeling like it was all about the wedding industry’s expectations, fluff that I didn’t care about, and cheesy traditions. As a lifelong introvert and not super girly-girl, I felt out of place in all of it. I felt like I had to take on all this baggage as a “bride” and I didn’t like that a whole lot. If you feel out of place in the wedding world but still want to have an unforgettable once in a life time experience on the day you get married, you have another option!
Ok so you’ve decided an elopement is right for you. Now you’re wondering but … HOW?
How to Elope
Choose a location!
This is probably one of THE toughest decisions anyone makes when it comes to eloping. And how could it not be?? The world is a BIG, beautiful place and the options are endless. We’ll dive deeper into where to elope a little later in this article but for now let’s just say that choosing a location is one of the biggest and most important decisions you will make in this process. This is the point in planning where I typically suggest people bring on a photographer who specializes in elopements (whether that’s me or not!). They will know the ins and outs of how to make this all happen and will likely be able to guide you to an awesome spot (that you may have never even heard of!) whether at home or abroad.
Decide whether you want an elopement package or something more custom
Many resorts offer elopement packages that include an officiant and photographer. For couples who want to get married in the absolute easiest way possible this is a good way to go but for most couples I recommend NOT going that route. By doing a custom elopement (again, this is where your photographer comes in handy – elopement photographers typically also double as elopement planners!) you will have a day that is MUCH more personal to you and will almost certainly have better photos and a better, more intimate experience.
Figure out any legalities of your location
If you are eloping in the United States you can do this simply by Googling the local laws. Some places require witnesses and waiting periods and some don’t. Here in Colorado where I live and shoot a lot, making it legal is as simple as going to the local county office and picking up your marriage license. You don’t even need witnesses or an officiant! For elopements occurring outside the U.S. I ALWAYS recommend doing the legal paperwork back home. This will make your life infinitely easier!!
Hire any vendors you want
We’ve already talked about the value an elopement photographer can provide but many couples also choose to work with other vendors as well. The vast majority of my couples choose to have their hair and makeup done for their elopement. Flowers, video, and cakes are common as well! Ask your photographer for vendor recommendations – that’s what we are here for!
Have the best damn day of your life!
Let go of stress and expectations and try your best to be in the moment. Trust me when I say that this day and experience is going to absolutely FLY by. Savor it.
Celebrate with your people!
Just because you eloped doesn’t mean you can’t throw a huge party down the line! Get your people together and have a big party to celebrate the crazy thing you just did! I always make slideshows for my couples – if your photographer does this it can be an awesome way to help your family and friends feel like they were there!
Ok, so … Where should I elope?
Deciding where to elope will be one THE biggest decisions you make in this whole process … and also one of the most fun ones! To help narrow down your options I always recommend spending a good bit of time with your partner thinking about the kinds of things you like to do, the types of places you love, and the kinds of experiences you want to have on your elopement day. Again, an elopement photographer can help you figure ALL of this out, but to get you started here are a list of my top suggestions but at home and abroad!
Best Elopement Locations in the World
Iceland is such a popular place to elope that its almost becoming cliché. But … there is a REASON for that. ICELAND IS AMAZING. There are so many different landscapes there that you could spend weeks exploring it and never get bored. From black sand beaches to waterfalls to puffins to geysers to hot springs … and the list goes on and on. IcelandAir runs affordable non-stop flights from many U.S. cities DIRECT to Keflavik so getting there is super easy from most places in the U.S. I can leave my house in Colorado and be in Iceland eight hours later … and that includes time spent going through TSA. How easy and awesome is that?!
(See more from this Iceland elopement here)
Ask any elopement photographer what their dream location is and MANY will say Isle of Skye. The Scottish highlands are beautiful, green, wild, and full of the fuzziest cows you’ve ever seen. If you dig moody vibes, friendly people, and hipster bovines, this is the place for you!
(Isle of Skye photo from Petr Meissner under a Creative Commons license)
Oh Patagonia. You are the stuff that elopement dreams are made of!! Sure its not the easiest place to get to but how many times are you going to get married? Go big or go home (but please don’t go home because this place is insane!!). Between Torres del Paine National Park, the jagged Fitz Roy mountain range, and the bluest water you’ve ever seen, Patagonia is a nature lover’s DREAM elopement location.
Italy is a big place with loads of options for an unforgettable elopement experience. Love beaches? Head to Sardinia or the Amalfi coast. Dig mountains? The Dolomites are some of the most magnificent mountains in the world. Like wine? Have you heard of Tuscany ..? Into food? Hello!! It’s ITALY!!! Getting to larger airports like Rome (now accessible direct from Denver via Norwegian Air! Woohoo!) is easy and often affordable. Pro Tip: Flights within Europe are SUPER cheap. I always suggest finding the cheapest flight from your city to anywhere in Europe and then booking separately to get to your location.)
You want wild and unique and mountains that jut STRAIGHT OUT OF THE SEA? Lofoten is for you. I will never forget the way my jaw dropped when I first saw this place in person. It is magic and would be an incredible off-the-beaten-path elopement location.
Want bright blue water and huge mountains but don’t want to go all the way to Patagonia? Banff is for you! This place is mountain magic at its very best!
A note about Banff: The Canadian government is extremely strict about letting photographers in to shoot elopements in Canada (which is a huge bummer for those of us who aren’t Canadian!). If you are going to elope in Banff do yourself a favor and please please please hire a Canadian photographer!!!
Where to Elope in the U.S.
Ok, so maybe I’m a little biased here but I think Colorado has to be one of the best places to elope in the U.S. – so much so that I have a whole separate section for it down below! But, let’s just say that between the massive mountains, thriving beer scene, fact that you can self-solemnize (no officiant!), and friendly people, if you want to stay state-side Colorado is perfect!
(See more from Laura + Katie’s Colorado elopement here)
I fell in love so hard with Alaska the first time I went there to shoot a vow renewal that I spent the next several weeks thinking about making a permanent move. It is THAT beautiful there! From the ocean vibes of Seward to the towering peaks of Denali National Park, Alaska is amazing and accessible while still feeling like its way off the beaten path!
(See more from Katie + John’s Seward, Alaska vow renewal here)
When I think of a Hawaii elopement I think of resort-style package deals that are a little less than satisfying. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Go custom for your elopement and you can have all the beauty of the islands in a much more personal experience. I’m partial to Kauai due to the sheer amount of nature there (you guys, its magical!!!) but any of the islands would be amazing!
Towering red rocks? Check. Beautiful desert landscape? Check. Delicious restaurants? Check. Easy access from a major airport? Check. Sedona is a place that has to be seen to be believed and is the perfect location for a desert style elopement!
Best Places to Elope in Colorado
This article wouldn’t be complete without a deeper dive into my home state and the mountains I love so much. While I don’t give away my secret locations (those are for my couples only!) I can hopefully point you in the right direction for some amazing adventures!
Breckenridge + Summit County
Just two hours from Denver airport but a world away in terms of both attitude AND altitude, Breckenridge is one of the best places in Colorado to elope. The town is adorable and has a ton to do with plenty of nature right on its doorstep.
(See more of Alexa + Ryan’s elopement style intimate wedding here)
Aspen has a reputation of being super ritzy but it also has easy access to some of the most beautiful mountain locations in the state – from ice caves to towering peaks, this is a perfect spot for an adventurous couple to elope!
(See more of Madison + Taylor’s Aspen elopement here)
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Thinks Colorado is all mountains? Think again! The sand dunes are one of the coolest and most unique spots in Colorado for an elopement that feels like its out of this world!
Fancy yourself doing something a little mountainy but also a little urban for your elopement? Boulder is the perfect home base. Get married at the base of a 13,000 foot mountain and then head back down the hill and have a celebratory dinner in one of the Foodiest Cities in America.
(See more from Emily + Spencer’s intimate Boulder wedding here)
Telluride and the San Juan Mountains
Ask any Coloradan what they think is the most beautiful part of Colorado and almost everyone will say the San Juans. In a state full of wild places, these feel the most wild. The San Juans have giant peaks, blue lakes, hot springs, and everything you need for a perfect Colorado elopement.
(See more from Kortney + Ben’s Telluride backpacking wedding here)
What Should You Wear for Your Elopement?
Generally speaking couples wear the same thing for their elopement that they would for a wedding. This generally means dresses for the ladies and suits for the guys.
Some things that I have seen and loved for elopement attire?
Other non-white dresses
Flowy dresses can look amazing!
Don’t be afraid of a long train!
Wear snow boots to your elopement to keep those toes warm!
Advice from those who have been there!
And lastly, I asked a few of my former clients and friends in the industry one simple questions: What advice would you give to someone planning an elopement?. Here’s what they said:
“Eloping is all about you as a couple. Want to eat hot dogs together? Eat hot dogs! Want to trash the dress (and tux)? Trash em both! Want to hike up a mountain for sunset? Hike up that mountain! If it’s important that your parents are there – bring em! There are no rules and the most important thing to do is focus on what’s most important to you as a couple. “ ~ Steph + Alex, Iceland
“Do what feels right for you and your spouse even if it’s the complete opposite of what is traditionally done. Don’t get caught up in what the wedding industry, family or friends think how your wedding should be. If you want to wear a fancy dress with hiking boots – do it! If you want to have a small ceremony with your loved ones and go exploring afterward with your spouse – do it! If you want to go hiking and have your first dance on the side of a mountain – do it! The options are limitless when you start thinking outside the box and focus on exactly what you both want. Traditions are passed down from generation to generation, but every tradition had to have a starting point for it to be passed down. Don’t be afraid to start a new tradition with your favorite person.” ~ Madi + Taylor, Colorado
“Be flexible and to where your adventure takes you. Don’t get mentally wrapped up in tryin to recreate someone else’s elopement that you saw on Instagram or Pinterest. Instead focus on having an adventure that is unique, personal, and meaningful to you.” ~ Maria + Justin, Iceland
“Eloping is an incredible adventure.The opportunity to strip away all the things that do not matter to you and invest only in what you both value, is an incredible way to start your marriage. However, the decision to elope can also be a sticky subject when breaking the news to your family!
While some eloping couples feel completely supported and at peace with a 2-person elopement, many couples desire a blend of a traditional elopement and an intimate wedding. Some couples do this by inviting only their closest friends/family. However, what if you desire it to only be the two of you but still want your family’s support? Here’s my advice.
After your 2-person elopement, throw an after party/dinner. During this celebration you can reveal all of your wedding photos on a slideshow, in a printed album or even reveal your full elopement film to be watched on a big screen. Here you can compromise more with family’s requests (i.e.dinner, toasts, signature dances, etc).This allows your entire friends and family to celebrate with you but also protects the privacy and intimacy of your actual wedding day.” ~ Elopement Videographer Whitney Milton
Need more help and inspiration?
My website is full of resources to help you have a day that exceeds your wildest wedding dreams! Here are a few more articles that may be helpful: