I Believe In... The Perfect Wedding Day Timeline // Here's How To Do It
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” - Gandalf the Grey
Being punctual is something almost everyone strives to be. No one wants to be late to work or their friend’s party. But no one especially wants to be late to their own wedding. So why is it that all too often on wedding days things run behind? Some say it’s the nature of the beast. There are so many different friends, guests, vendors, and moving parts that things are bound to run a little bit behind. And while this is true I believe there is one way that you can herd the cats, drink your champagne, and still be on time. You can have fun and still stay organized with one thing.
The Perfect Wedding Day Timeline
I know it’s that cheesy phrase your college prep teacher told you, but it’s true!
Most couples have attended weddings prior to getting married but rarely do they pay attention to the flow and timeliness of all of the things happening on that day. Not to mention, typically when couples are getting married it’s the first time they’ve planned a wedding. So it’s no wonder couples have that deer in headlights look when their first vendor asks them “So what does your wedding day timeline look like?” Usually this question is followed by, “Umm…Uhh…Well…I…I mean we…Well…Uhh…We haven’t really thought about that…Yet.” **gulp**
It’s a really big undertaking to ask couples to figure out their wedding timeline all on their own. Luckily, a lot of vendors can help their couples figure out how they want their day to go. Venues and catering companies help with this a lot. Mostly because they have weddings every single weekend and have a lot of systems in place to keep things organized. If you have a wedding planner you’re in even better hands. Wedding planners will plan your wedding day timeline down to the tiniest detail and will know exactly when everything and everyone is arriving and leaving. Who needs to be where and when they need to be there. If you don’t have a wedding planner yet, I highly recommend getting one. They make your vendors’ job easier plus it passes the planning torch from you to the planner. Leaving you more time to enjoy being engaged! One more time for those in the back…
Wedding planners take the hard stuff and leave you more time to enjoy being engaged!
But, not everyone can afford a wedding planner. My guess is if you’re reading this wedding day timeline creation has fallen into your lap and it’s up to you to make sure everyone isn’t running around like a chicken with their head cut off. If that’s the case I have a ton of information coming atchya in this blog post to help you design your perfect wedding day timeline. Include three REAL sample timelines! Plus a FREE download for a Wedding Day Timeline Questionnaire to ask you all of the questions you need to kickstart your timeline design process! So buckle up your seatbelts kids because we’re about to drive into a world of timeline knowledge! Let’s get to it shall we?
There are a few things you’re going to need to consider before even starting off with your timeline.
- Are the ceremony & reception taking place in the same venue?
- What time does the ceremony start?
- What time will the reception end? (aka When will they be kicking you out?)
- Are you participating in a First Look for your photos? (i.e. seeing each other before for photo purposes)
So if you’re not sure about all of these that’s okay. We’re going to tackle these one by one.
1. ARE THE CEREMONY AND RECEPTION TAKING PLACE IN THE SAME VENUE?
If you’re in the process of planning your wedding timeline you’ve likely secured your venue. If that’s the case, you will know the answer to this question. If not, then it’s really all a matter of preference. Some couples want to be married in a church and then have a reception at a different venue nearby. Some couples want to be married outside but their dream reception venue doesn’t have an outdoor ceremony location. Some couples don’t like the ceremony location options in their dream reception venue. Some couples like the idea of having two different venues. It’s all up to you. The only reason this is important is that when budgeting timing for your cocktail hour, photos, and other things you will need to factor in drive time.
2. WHAT TIME DOES THE CEREMONY START?
When I am planning rough timelines for my couples I ALWAYS start with the ceremony time. If you don’t know your ceremony time yet then it’s really up to you when you begin. A lot of churches have slots available for ceremonies and will hold multiple ceremonies in one day or will have another event or service they have to perform before or after your wedding. These things will effect your timeline and when you can begin.
3. WHAT TIME WILL THE RECEPTION END?
This also somewhat depends on what time your ceremony ends but it also depends on how long you are able to rent the reception venue. Some couples want to party all night but the venue caps all receptions at 12am. Some couples want to be back to their hotel at a decent hour for an early honeymoon flight. Some couples have a backyard shindig that doesn’t have an end time. In this case, you will just want to consider when you want your vendors to leave and just start pouring the alcohol yourselves. It’s really all about what type of day you want to have. When discussing end times with your venue, be sure to keep in mind that guests typically only have about 6 hours of partying in them before they turn into pumpkins. So if your reception starts at 4pm you may want to reconsider that 12am end time and save yourselves some money on the open bar! If you really want to continue partying, sometimes it’s best to look into having an after party at a local bar and anyone who wants to join you can tag along. Also, something else to consider, late receptions beginning around 6pm are typically not kid friendly and usually just end with frustrated parents who are ready to get their exhausted kids home. So if you’re wanting a late night shindig, maybe consider a kid-free event!?
4. ARE YOU PARTICIPATING IN A FIRST LOOK?
This really has a lot to do with your photographer. For my couples, I have zero preference on whether or not they do a first look. There are only two times I ask my couples to consider one. One, when they’re having a wedding in the months of November - March and they want a late ceremony start time. I say this because most photographers (and couples) either rely on or prefer natural daylight for photos. If you’re having a 5:30pm ceremony in December and you don’t want to see each other before the ceremony be aware that it will be dark outside and all of your photos will be at night. Two, if you’re having the ceremony and reception in the same location. While it can be done to not see each other if everything is in the same location it’s just easier and flows better if all of the photos are done before the ceremony so you can just go relax during cocktail hour with your guests instead of taking photos. Otherwise, it does not matter to me at all. It doesn’t matter to me because I know that I will be planning months in advance with my couples to have an iron clad timeline that will make sure everything is taken care of on the day of no matter what you choose. The only reason I need to know, is it effects WHEN we do things.
Below are two very basic timeline examples. One features a first look with everything at the same venue. The other features no first look with a separate venue for the ceremony and reception.
SAMPLE ONE: FIRST LOOK & SAME VENUE
9:30 AM | Bride & Groom and Wedding Party Arrive at Venue
10:00 AM | Begin Hair & Makeup
12:00 PM | Photographer Arrives
1:15 PM | End Hair & Makeup; Wedding Party Dresses
1:30 PM | Florals Arrive (Bouquets, Corsages, & Boutonnières)
1:45 PM | Bride & Groom Dress
2:15 PM | First Look
2:30 PM | Bride & Groom Photos
3:00 PM | Wedding Party Photos
3:30 PM | Family Formals
4:00 PM | Downtime Prior To Ceremony, Guests Begin To Arrive
4:25 PM | Bride & Groom and Wedding Party Line Up For Ceremony
4:30 PM | Ceremony Begins
5:00 PM | Ceremony Ends, Cocktail Hour Begins
5:50 PM | Cocktail Hour Ends; Guests Begin Moving To Their Seats; Bride & Groom and Wedding Party Begin Lining Up For Grand Entrance
6:10 PM | Bride & Groom and Wedding Party Announced Into Reception For Grand Entrance
6:20 PM | Bride & Groom First Dance
6:25 PM | Welcome Speech/Prayer
6:35 PM | Dinner Is Served
7:00 PM | Toasts/Speeches
7:15 PM | Cake Cutting
7:25 PM | Parent Dances
7:35 PM | Open Dance Floor
8:00 PM | Bouquet and Garter Toss
8:15 PM | Re-Open Dance Floor
10:30 PM | Last Call
10:45 PM | Begin Gathering Guests for Sparkler Exit
11:00 PM | Sparkler Exit
11:15 PM |End Reception
SAMPLE TWO: NO FIRST LOOK & DIFFERENT VENUE
9:00 AM | Begin Hair & Makeup
11:00 AM | Photographer(s) Arrive
12:00 PM | End Hair & Makeup; Wedding Party Dresses
12:15 PM | Florals Arrive (Bouquets, Corsages, & Boutonnières)
12:30 PM | Bride & Groom Dress
1:00 PM | Begin Gathering Things to Depart Hotel
1:30 PM | Depart Hotel for Church
2:00 PM | Arrive at Church; Downtime Prior to Ceremony; Guests Begin to Arrive
2:30 PM | Ceremony Begins at Catholic Church
3:30 PM | Ceremony Ends
3:45 PM | Begin Family Formals
4:15 PM | Bride & Groom and Wedding Party Photos at the Altar
4:30 PM | Depart Church for Photo Location
5:00 PM | Arrive at Photo Location; Wedding Party and Bride & Groom Photos
6:00 PM | Begin Cocktail Hour at Reception Venue; Bride & Groom and Wedding Party depart Photo Location for Reception Venue
6:50 PM | Cocktail Hour Ends; Guests Begin Moving To Their Seats; Bride & Groom and Wedding Party Begin Lining Up For Grand Entrance
7:10 PM | Bride & Groom and Wedding Party Announced Into Reception For Grand Entrance
7:20 PM | Bride & Groom First Dance
7:25 PM | Welcome Speech/Prayer
7:35 PM | Dinner Is Served
8:00 PM | Toasts/Speeches
8:15 PM | Cake Cutting
8:25 PM | Parent Dances
8:35 PM | Open Dance Floor
9:00 PM | Bouquet and Garter Toss
9:15 PM | Photographer(s) Leaves
10:15 PM | Re-Open Dance Floor
11:30 PM | Last Call
12:00 AM | End Reception
One thing you may have noticed is the timing of events in the reception. There are a couple things I recommend in order to keep your reception moving along and get people on to the dance floor faster.
- Give yourselves 30 minutes to actually eat. The start and end time of this can be fudged. Once the reception begins everything is pretty much an estimation and guidelines. But definitely give yourselves time to sit, breathe, eat, and drink. So many couples don’t eat a bite on their wedding day and that just makes me sad.
- Start toasts while your guests are still eating dinner. This way you have a captive audience and you can maximize that dinner hour.
- Cut your cake immediately after toasts, or at least close to the end of dinner. Sometimes you don’t have much control over this based on what your venue prefers when it comes to cutting the cake for the guests. But you definitely want to cut the cake close enough to when dinner has happened so people can actually enjoy it as dessert. You also want to cut it towards the end of the formal events because while it’s not practiced as much anymore an old rule of thumb was that you could gracefully leave a wedding after the cake cutting. So while your friends may not know this tradition, your grandparents might. So just keep them in mind.
- First dance before dinner. I always think it’s nice to have your first dance right as you begin reception. But this is 100% a total preference thing on my part. Parent dances can come after the cake cutting. They don’t have to all three be done consecutively.
- Have your garter toss later, but not too late. A lot of people will schedule their bouquet and garter toss until after people have gotten good and liquored up and are in party mode. This is great. But be sure to not schedule it too late. I think about 30 minutes of open dance floor is a good amount of time before you want to do this. Some guests don’t stay late. So if you do your bouquet and garter toss too late there may not be anyone left to catch it!
Now, if you’re anything like me you live your life running perpetually five minutes behind. And if you aren’t like this, surely one of your wedding party members is. Due to my natural tendency to run five minutes behind everywhere I go I build in cushion time… everywhere. All of my wedding timelines have TONS of extra cushion time for when things go a little crazy. A couple places I do this are:
- Transit time between locations. I always double how long it takes to get somewhere. You never know if you’re going to leave late, run into traffic, or have some sort of freak incident that puts you behind. If you push it too close, everything else is thrown off.
- How long I budget for my photo time. I always say I need 30 minutes to get people dressed,15 minutes for a first look, and 30 minutes for the wedding party. When in reality I can do those things in less time. Heck, a first look usually only lasts about 5-10 minutes as it is. And that’s with taking the time to set the couple up in their desired first look location.
- Time for packing up. So many people don’t think about the time it takes to get 3-8 ladies from a hotel room to the car. It takes time! Packing up all of those bags, making sure no one left anything, and SOMEONE will want to stop in the hotel Starbucks before they get in the limo. Happens all the time. So I’ve started budgeting in a time for the bridesmaids to start packing things up while maybe the bride is still fussing with a few fashion details.
- Time for guests to move from one place to another. It takes longer than you’d think. Herding cats people! We’re herding cats here!
Now you might be thinking, “This is all fine and hypothetical and all but no wedding timeline actually works out this perfectly.” You’re right, these timelines are very rough, and very best case scenario. But I do have three REAL timelines from three REAL wedding I photographed this year. Barring random weather incidents for one of them we stayed on time for all three of these weddings and everything went quite swimmingly. Plus, you’ll get to see exactly how I layout my timelines for all of my clients including all of the extra information I put into them.
Click the links below to see the different timelines for the different types of weddings:
Okay… whew. You made it to the end of ALLLLLL OF THAT. It’s all a lot to consider isn’t it? That’s why having good vendors who are experienced in their craft are so important. Budgets will always be there but I always try to stress to couples how important it is to have people who are experienced and know what their doing on their day. The great paradox of weddings is most couples have never planned a wedding before, let alone execute one. Most of the time, they have literally no idea what they’re doing. They want their wedding to go off like it’s the 100th wedding they’ve planned but in reality they barely remember the order of events from their cousin’s wedding 2 years ago.
This is why a couple years ago I decided to take a page from the book of wedding planners and start really planning my wedding day timelines for my couples. Down to some really small details. My timelines include TONS of information and I keep two printed copies on hand all day plus a digital copy on my phone. Once the timeline is approved by my couple I email that timeline to all of their vendors about one month to two weeks prior to the event to make sure everyone is on the same page.
All of my timeline prep begins with a questionnaire that YOU can download here if you would like to jump start your timeline organization.
I send out this questionnaire 6-8 weeks prior to the wedding and as soon as I get it back I begin the first draft with my couples. We go back and forth until the timeline is complete and works for everyone. I provide this service to my couples because it makes the day run smoothly for everyone and allows for less headaches and more champagne! And I’m in the business of more champagne… always.
So if you don’t want to hassle with creating your own timeline. Or if you feel lost by all of this timeline craziness. Click around on my site and drop me an inquiry for your big day! I’d love to take care of all of your photography and timeline needs. Plus, if you book before February 14th you’ll receive $500 off of any wedding package!