NEW YORK — Choosing a faraway destination for a wedding may sound romantic and exotic, but it can take a financial toll on loved ones who don't have the time or money to participate. So how does a prospective guest decline when the bride or groom is a close friend or relative?
The choices are simple: Either suck it up and figure out how to economize, or be politely honest about why you're not attending, according to industry experts.
Americans still have mostly positive thoughts about weddings overall, but nearly 8 in 10 — or 79 percent — said in a recent AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll that they would prefer them close to home, as either inviter or invitee.
Last year, the average cost of a wedding was $33,391, excluding the honeymoon, according to The Knot's annual Real Weddings Study of nearly 13,000 U.S. brides and grooms married in 2017. As couples look to nontraditional venues — barns, farms, historical homes, parks, wineries, museums — spending per guest has increased from $194 in 2009 to $268 last year, the survey found. That comes as the number of guests has decreased from 149 in 2009 to 136 last year.
The percentage of destination weddings, defined as 200 miles or more from home, amounted to 25 percent last year, said The Knot's editor in chief, Kristen Maxwell Cooper. She said the wedding website has seen a decline over the last several years in international destination weddings, though destination weddings in the U.S. are on the rise.
About 60 percent of all destination weddings in The Knot survey for 2017 were domestic, up from about 55 percent in 2013, Maxwell Cooper said. About 40 percent were international, down from 45 percent in 2013.
"Couples really want to be close to home and they want all their guests to be able to come," Maxwell Cooper said. "As for guests, we all get to that point in life when we're invited to like 10 weddings in one year and we can't go to 10 weddings on the Amalfi Coast, or the equivalent."
For most destination weddings, she said, couples do not cover travel and accommodation expenses, and plan multiple events spread over a weekend.
The top international destinations, according to The Knot's 2017 survey, are the Caribbean, Mexico and Europe. The study did not break down locations to specific countries or regions. Florida, Hawaii, California and Colorado were the top U.S. domestic destinations.
Guests looking to decline a destination wedding invitation, for whatever reason, "should be honest and up front about it," Maxwell Cooper said. "Couples more and more are expecting if they're throwing a wedding that is super far away that not all of their guests are going to be able to come, but if you're immediate family, you should definitely try to make it happen."
For those who simply can't, send a bottle of Champagne to the couple's room, or a favorite sweet treat, to let them know you're thinking about them on their special day.
As for the couple, don't turn a "no" RSVP into World War III.
"They have to take it graciously. We all have a million things going on in our lives. We all have to make choices," Maxwell Cooper said.
Money is not always a factor. Candice Coppola, a luxury wedding planner in both Connecticut and the Caribbean, is co-author of "The White Dress: Destinations," a guide to planning destination weddings. Her clients are spending between $700 to $1,000 per guest. From where Coppola sits — focusing on quality over quantity — luxury destination weddings are doing just fine.
"We have no less than probably 15 inquiries a week, most of which we can't facilitate because they're not necessarily in our budget bracket," she said. "In terms of people coming to the Caribbean, and Barbados in particular, we're seeing a steady stream interested in having that destination wedding experience."
Some of those clients help keep down costs for guests by providing airport transportation, activity fees, reduced-rate rooms, multiple meals and airfare for any close loved ones who can't afford it.
"Guest experience to them is a huge priority," Coppola said. "We've noticed a generosity uptick."
Photographer Erum Rizvi specializes in South Asian weddings, often large and flamboyant affairs that can last up to four days. Because such weddings pull out all the stops, he said, Indian Americans looking to stretch their U.S. dollars routinely marry overseas, scheduling up to four days of hectic dinners, breakfasts, and such activities as hiking and snorkeling for their guests.
"For guests, they're able to combine a vacation away from home with a fun and important celebration," Rizvi said, noting that the Indian wedding industry is also booming in such places as Thailand, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, all locations where base costs are considerably less and the U.S. dollar has more spending power.
Heidi McBain, who lives outside Dallas, recalled her guilt in deciding against going to a first cousin's wedding in Guatemala about 11 years ago, when her daughter was less than a year old. Her family is close-knit and she had been to all her other first cousins' weddings.
"As much as we would have loved to go to support the couple and to visit a new country, we were financially strapped at the time and didn't want to bring our young daughter to a third-world country," she said. "Turns out we made a great decision as almost everyone got sick with food poisoning on this trip!"