ANDY SCHIFF AND HIS girlfriend, Melanie Ufema, and two of their friends were mere feet away from emptying their pockets of loose change in the security line at Denver International Airport when Schiff suddenly stopped.
He dropped to one knee, and instead of loose change, pulled a diamond ring out of his pocket. "Melanie, will you marry me?" he asked.
Schiff's buddy had a video camera rolling -- he was in on it, and everyone had agreed they should "document the trip" -- so it was pointed at a stunned but grinning Ufema when she said, "Yes."
Schiff says he wasn't really worried Ufema would say no. "She was going to be on an airplane with me for eight hours, and we were going to Maui for 10 days," he says. "She couldn't say no. It was a foolproof plan."
It took just a few days in Hawaii, with its pristine beaches and warm breezes, for the couple to come up with another plan, one that would involve persuading all of their immediate family members and many of their closest friends to hop on planes a year later for a Maui wedding.
Lucky for Andy, his brother MJ already had paved the way for a destination wedding. The eldest Schiff sibling had been married at Colorado's Beaver Creek Ski Resort five years earlier, and family members were much more amenable to traveling for the big day. But that first time, there had been some resistance.
"Selfishly, my first thought was, 'Well, I don't suppose you expect your family is going to be there,' " the Schiffs' mother, Molly Broeren, says. The family wanted to attend, but her parents were elderly, not in the best of health and lived out of state. The prospect of traveling to Denver and then getting to Beaver Creek was daunting.
"Not to mention the financial aspect," Broeren says. "Being the parents of the groom, we didn't have to worry about the wedding itself, but it would cost to stay there, and we needed to take care of the rehearsal dinner in a place that, let's face it, is not known for being cheap."
Even once those hurdles were managed, a few more presented themselves. For example, guests needed to be transported up the mountain by chairlift for the reception. "I'm afraid of heights, and I'd never been on a chairlift before," Broeren says. "And so were a few other guests, and my parents were not even going to be able to get on the lift. So we had to rent a bus to get them up there."
Adjusting to last-minute problems and unusual circumstances are two important things to consider when planning a destination wedding, says Margi Arnold, whose Denver agency, Creative Travel Adventures, specializes in weddings that take place outside of the United States. "One of the things you should think about right from the start is what would be good for your guests," Arnold says. "A lot of people have that starry-eyed thing in their heads about the perfect wedding, but you have to remember that there will be other people there, too."
According to the Travel Industry Association, 16 percent of American marriages are destination weddings, a growing trend not only because those marrying for the first time are discovering its appeal, but also because those embarking on second or third marriages or renewing their vows find that they want to have smaller gatherings and spend their money on the trip, not just the reception.
"The destination wedding is a win-win, really," Arnold says. "It's a family reunion, a big party, three or four days to enjoy your guests away from the day-to-day stuff. It's a great reason for everyone to go on vacation, not just the people getting married."
In addition, Arnold says that brides and grooms often are surprised to discover that the cost is lower and the planning less intensive than with a wedding held in their hometowns.
"Destination weddings are typically not as stressful as traditional weddings," she says. "There are fewer people, so it's often less expensive. You often do less in terms of the elaborate fussing."
For instance, when getting married in their hometowns, couples are less likely to hire a wedding planner or coordinator, instead feeling that they have to do much of the investigating and booking themselves.
"When you book a wedding at a resort in Mexico or the Caribbean, the wedding planner is usually included," Arnold said. "They can do a lot of the legwork for you, finding the photographer, that kind of thing. And as for flowers, you can wait and pick those when you get there. The places that really have this wired, they have a binder that shows you the choices, and they can get everything there within a day or two. And it's all beautiful stuff, because you're usually talking about tropical locations."
Sarah Pardikes of Arvada, Colo., says her wedding Jan. 24 at the all-inclusive Grand Palladium Riviera Resort and Spa in Riviera Maya, Mexico, was significantly cheaper than anything she and husband Brett Pardikes were looking at closer to home.
"To get married here, the amount of money that we probably would have spent, we thought we might as well take a vacation, spend just as much or less and be down in Mexico for nine days," Sarah says. "We looked at one of the popular places for a reception in Denver, and it was $4,000 just to rent a space for four hours, with no food or anything. In Mexico, our package was $3,200 for 30 people, which included food and drinks and our stay."
Arnold says the majority of her weddings head to Mexico, and one of the top spots is the Riviera Maya. "My first question is almost always, 'How do you envision it?'"she says. "If they say crystal-clear blue waters and white-sand beaches, I say, 'Riviera Maya.'"
And regardless of the location, all-inclusives also are becoming popular. "Especially if everyone is going to stay there, all of the food and drinks are taken care of and included," Arnold says. "That takes a lot of planning and stress off."
Andy Schiff and Sarah Pardikes say they believe that left them more time to enjoy themselves around their big days. "We organized a day of golf and spa," Schiff says. "It was optional; we just said, 'OK, we'll be doing this at this time, here's how much it costs, and if you want to go, sign up, be there, and we'll have fun.' It was great."
The Pardikes paid for all 30 guests to go on an excursion to Xel-Ha, the nearby eco-water park. "People could go snorkeling, scuba diving, jump off cliffs, eat and drink, whatever," she says. "Everyone seemed to have a blast."
Sarah did point out that doing your wedding this way might mean there will be more people around during the honeymoon than you expected. "We did think we were going to be able to separate out some days where we would be alone," she admits. "But that didn't really happen. But we were fine with it. I wouldn't have done it any differently."
Avoid a glitch as you plan your out-of-town hitch
The only hitch that should be happening at a destination wedding is the one that involves the bride and groom. To keep things running as smoothly as possible, the professionals agree with those who have successfully married at distant locales: Plan, plan, plan as far in advance as you can. Here are some ideas for making your dream nuptials a well-organized reality:
Send out save-the-date cards. Andy Schiff says his cards were mailed about nine months in advance, giving people plenty of time to decide, make arrangements and find airfare deals. "The earlier people know it's happening, the more able they are to find a way to attend," says travel agent Margi Arnold.
Get it in writing. Particularly when dealing with overseas wedding planners or out-of-town photographers and other vendors, put it in an e-mail.
Be patient. Many countries, especially ones with beaches, are on a more relaxed schedule -- you've heard the expression "island time." It's less stressful to accept that and go with it.
Be flexible. While it's good to have a clear idea of your wants and needs for the big day, it also helps to have some wiggle room. Many locales have customs and rules that may not jibe with your vision of the perfect wedding, and even after careful planning things still may go wrong.
Visit ahead if you can. Not only does it cut down on surprises -- the beach turns out to be much smaller than you pictured, there's a seedy neighborhood right next to your hotel -- but it allows you to better customize the experience.
Don't be shy -- ask for the deals. Some resorts will offer a free wedding or throw in the reception room if you book a certain number of rooms, or the bride and groom get massages or free meals. Make sure you find out what's possible.
Tailor attire to the locale. Headed to a tropical isle for an outdoor affair? Then black tuxedos may not be the way to go. Know it's going to be windy? Long, filmy veils have a tendency to blow -- across your face, around your groom, onto the minister. "If you're going nontraditional anyway, why not think that way with the attire, too," Arnold says.
Think about trip insurance. Particularly if you are going to Mexico during hurricane season. "You never know what could happen," Arnold says."People get sick, something comes up. This is an expensive undertaking, and having insurance means it's taken care of."
Make sure you know the rules. For example, a blood test -- to rule out HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases -- is required to get a marriage license in Mexico.
Offer guests choices. The more, the merrier. Send out travel packets or guides to guests six months ahead, with three lodging options in a variety of price ranges and deadlines on booking, as well as travel agent contact and flight information, and other helpful hints about planning the trip.