Table of Contents:

Big wedding, small elopement, micro wedding, intimate wedding. . . how do you figure out which one is right for you and your partner? It can be SO difficult to decide what you want your wedding to look like, especially with all the expectations + pressure placed on you by external forces—society, family members, Pinterest wedding boards, you name it. Planning your wedding should be an exciting, joyful process, not a crazy stressful one, friend! I want to help you make sure that you choose a day that is true to you and nobody else, which is why I wrote this guide to choosing between a big wedding vs. a small elopement.

I’ve gathered all my top tips and best advice from my years photographing all kinds of weddings and elopements, from large 100+ person celebrations to totally private elopements. Neither is right or wrong, and there are so many options in between the two extremes, as well. Throughout this blog post, I’ll be answering all your biggest questions about weddings vs. elopements, giving you a list of important questions to ask yourselves, and 8 key things to consider. 

But most importantly, I want to remind you that you have permission to do whatever the hell you want! This guide isn’t meant to convince you one way or another; it’s meant to show you all of your options and guide you through the decision-making process. As long as your day revolves around you, your partner, and what you want, then you’ll be golden no matter what.

I can’t wait for you to get to the end of this and finally feel confident in your decision + in knowing what’s right for the two of you!

Wedding vs. Elopement FAQ’s

How is an elopement different than a traditional wedding?

An elopement differs from a traditional wedding in that typically, elopements are more focused on the couple, rather than the experience of the guests. Larger weddings tend to place more of an emphasis on appearance, traditions, and providing an incredible memory for guests, and the couple’s true wants + desires often fall to the wayside. While I love that weddings are aimed at guest experience, that can easily take away the focus from what the couple actually wants out of their wedding day; instead of doing what they want, they may be more focused on aesthetics, appearances, and putting on a show for their guests. The pressure put on traditional weddings to do certain things, follow certain expectations, etc. takes away from the meaning of the day and the whole reason why the couple is there: to get married!

Couples who elope typically have a much smaller guest list, often made up of only a few of their closest friends and family members—or they might go without any guests at all. This makes it way easier for them to bring their own unique dreams to life without the judgement of others impacting their decisions or affecting their feelings! And that’s really the whole reason that elopements have become so popular in recent years: couples are tired of the expectations and are ready to say to hell with it—we’re doing our own damn thing.

Do we have to put a label on our wedding day?

Absolutely not! As soon as you start the planning process, you’ll be hit with a bunch of wedding lingo across the industry: elopement, micro wedding, intimate wedding, tiny wedding, big wedding, maybe there are even more out there that I haven’t heard yet. While it’s amazing that couples have SO many options and so much freedom nowadays to choose, this can actually backfire a little bit and cause even more stress, trying to find the “right” label for your day, or trying to fit it into one “category.” Just as there isn’t one “right” way to have a wedding, there isn’t one “right” way to elope, either, so you don’t need to spend any time worrying about labeling your day correctly.

Does an elopement have to take place at a courthouse?

No way! I know that’s how they used to do it back in the day, but elopements can take place nearly anywhere now. Elope in your backyard, at a local park, at a national park in the mountains, at a beach across the world. Elope at your favorite place, or a new place you’ve been dying to go. Elope somewhere that’ll make you feel on top of the world, overcome with joy, and so present in the moment. The sky’s the limit, friend!

(But you totally can elope at a courthouse if you want, by all means! Sometimes that’s the easiest way to do it if you’re looking for a quick ceremony, and are moving onto a reception or evening gathering later in the day.)

Is eloping cheaper than having a big wedding?

Not necessarily, but often times that is the case. Elopements do tend to be cheaper than big weddings simply because they have a much smaller guest, which means fewer mouths to feed, less transportation to book, not as many hotel rooms/accommodations to pay for, etc. Couples who elope also save a ton of money on their location, since renting a venue for a full day/weekend can get crazy expensive, and if you opt to elope somewhere like a national park or an Airbnb, your venue costs won’t be anything more than the permit you need to obtain or the cost of your Airbnb rental! 

With all that said, you could definitely still spend the same amount of money on an elopement as you would a wedding—it just depends on what your priorities are. Maybe you save $10K on a venue, but you put that toward your dream photographer and videographer instead. Or you might save $5K on a caterer for 100 people, and instead put that money toward a private chef for 10 people! It’s all about figuring out what’s most important to you, and leaving room in your budget to prioritize it, no matter how big or small your wedding is. You could also always lower your elopement budget and put a good chunk of money toward a trip you’ve been dreaming of!

Can we elope and still invite guests?

Hell yeah you can. While I recommend keeping your guest list to around 10-15 people if you’re eloping outdoors (due to park regulations and trail sizes), there’s no hard and fast rule. Just because you’re eloping doesn’t mean you can’t invite anyone, but you also don’t have to invite anyone at ALL if you don’t want to. I’ve seen couples elope with 1 friend, 3 family members, or a group of 15 people they love, and every one of those days was beautiful! It mostly depends on what your budget can cover (think: food, drinks, travel, transportation, accommodations, activities), and any limitations that may be in place at your ceremony location.

Can we elope and still incorporate certain wedding traditions?

For sure! Elopements are all about breaking free from expectations and traditions, but what good would it be if we put the same rules we put on weddings, on elopements? If there are any wedding traditions that would mean a lot to you, then by all means, incorporate them into your elopement. Think through why that tradition would be significant/special, and that’ll give an extra layer of meaning to it other than just because it’s a tradition. Have a first dance out in the middle of the forest, do a bouquet toss with your 3-4 guests, or skip the first look and do a traditional aisle first look. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re happy with it!

Can we elope and still have a reception?

Yes you can! Why not have your cake and eat it too!? Many couples will have a private or very intimate elopement, and then have a bigger party later on with family/friends, whether it be a day later, a week later, or a year later on their first anniversary. Your “reception” could look like a private dinner at a restaurant you love, reminiscing on your elopement day, or it could look like a literal, full-on reception at a wedding venue with a DJ, cake, the works. This is a really great option if you’re having a ton of trouble choosing, and you want to find some way to involve the people you love—without them actually being present on the day-of!

For more ideas and ways to include your family in your elopement, take a look at my recent blog post, 4 Meaningful Ways to Involve Family In Your Elopement.

Big Wedding vs. Small Elopement: Which Is Right For You?

Now that you’ve successfully graduated from Wedding/Elopement 101, it’s time to start comparing the two a bit more directly to figure out which one is the right choice for you + your partner. To make this easier for you, I’ve written out two lists: one list of reasons a big wedding might be right for you, and one list of reasons a small elopement might be better. Read through these, asking yourselves which ones really feel true to you + sound like what you’re looking for—whichever list you feel most aligned with is probably going to be the best fit for you.

A big wedding might be right for you if. . .

  • Renting a venue sounds like your dream day
  • You love the idea of throwing a massive party and planning all the little details
  • You enjoy having attention on you
  • It would be special to you to have all of your family + friends in one place
  • You prefer a stricter, more structured timeline
  • You love the idea of following certain wedding traditions
  • You’re okay putting a large chunk of your budget toward your venue rental

A small elopement might be right for you if. . .

  • You value experiences more than aesthetics/traditions/trends
  • You want to have the space for quality time with a select group of guests (i.e. 5-10 people)
  • You’d rather invite only your closest loved ones, than invite every member of your family tree/friend group
  • You want to have unique activities as part of your celebration
  • You don’t like being the center of attention
  • You’d rather say your vows in front of just a few people vs. 100-200
  • You want the freedom to elope anywhere, and not be restricted to regular venues
  • You prefer a looser, more flexible timeline
  • You’d rather put your money toward other vendors/your guests/activities than a venue rental

How to Choose Between a Big Wedding & Small Elopement: 8 Things to Consider

Now, let’s dig in a little deeper into all of those topics I just mentioned! While there are obviously a TON of things to take into consideration when choosing between a big wedding & a small elopement, here are the top 8 that I’d suggest focusing on first.

1. Guests

I’ll keep this one short since I’ve talked about it quite a bit already, but obviously your day is going to be majorly impacted by the people you invite! Elopements are amazing for couples who don’t have a ton of people they want to invite, and would rather keep the day intimate for just their closest loved ones. Think through who is a must-invite, and who you could maybe celebrate with at a later date. I know it can be hard to leave people out, but trust me—you want ONLY people at your big day who will be there to love, support, and cheer you on! Avoid inviting people who will cause you stress, drama, or any unnecessary overwhelm, as that can easily overtake the joy of the day. 

2. Budget

Your budget will play a big role either way you go, but like I mentioned before, there are certain things that eloping couples may prioritize versus couples who have a big wedding. Big weddings often come with large expenses such as venue rentals, catering, drinks, tables/chairs, accommodations, and travel, which all adds up really quickly even if you don’t plan for it to😅If you elope, it’ll be a lot easier to save money on those costs and instead, put your money toward what matters to you most, whether that be your guest experience, photographer/videographer, florals, smaller quantities of food/drinks, your honeymoon, or the location you choose.

3. Priorities

Figuring out what your priorities are is a key aspect of wedding planning, no matter whether you’re having a big wedding or a small elopement! You want to make sure that the two of you are on the same page about what your priorities are; aka what’s most important to you, what you’re willing to spend more time/money on, and what you’re okay spending less on. For some couples, the location might be priority, so the first big decision you make is finding a location you love—THEN you find out how many guests are allowed at that location, how much it costs, etc. For others, the priority may be guests, so you first make your guest list, and then find locations that’ll work based off that. Prioritizing parts of your day will make it much easier to make decisions with confidence and clarity when it comes to guests, money, location, vendors, and more!

4. Time

Next up, you want to consider time—how much time you want to spend planning, and the time you actually spend on the elopement/wedding itself. For example, if you get engaged and want to get married two months later, you may have to go for a smaller elopement simply due to time constraints (venues may not be available, you might not have as large of a budget, guests may not be able to travel in, etc.). Or maybe you know you REALLY don’t want to be spending a year planning a crazy huge party—either hire a planner to do it for you, or opt for a smaller celebration that doesn’t require that lengthy planning process! You’ll also want to consider how long you want to spend celebrating: a day? A weekend? A full week? It may be easier to plan a longer celebration with a smaller group of guests, whereas planning a week-long celebration with a group of 100 guests will involve a lot more logistics to be smoothed out. 

5. Location

Location is probably one of the biggest ones on this list, as the place you get married will have a major impact on how you’re able to celebrate! As I’ve mentioned already, larger weddings are typically limited to traditional venues due to the bigger guest list and necessity for a lot more space; whereas elopements have a ton more freedom + flexibility to dream. With a group of only 5-15 people, you can elope pretty much anywhere you want, as you don’t have to worry about planning a bunch of tables, seating, etc. 10 is probably the ideal number for an outdoor elopement, as you’ll want to make sure your group fits on trails, so if you keep your guest list under that, the world is your oyster, friend!

6. Activities

If you want a day filled with meaningful, unique activities, it’s going to be way easier to do this with a small group vs. a big one. There will be way fewer logistics to plan, and the cost will be MUCH less! Think activities like hiking, having a picnic, horseback riding, biking, boating, rafting. . . the smaller your group for these types of things, the better and easier it’ll be to coordinate. Make sure you think through transportation to any activities/excursions, too!

If you want need some ideas to get your creative juices flowin’, here’s a list of 25 Unique Elopement Ideas for an Unforgettable Day!

7. Accommodations

Traditional weddings typically involve the couple staying the night in some sort of luxurious Airbnb or hotel room, with guests staying in the same place or another one nearby—and those overnight accommodations can rack up your costs GREATLY. With a smaller group of people, you won’t need to spend as much money on accommodations for your guests, and you’ll have way more options, too, such as renting a large home or cabin where you can all fit + spend quality time together!

I personally am obsessed with Airbnb weddings — if that sounds like your vibe, then don’t miss my guide to How to Plan an Epic Airbnb Wedding or Elopement in California.

8. Permits

Finally, you’ll need to take permits into consideration when choosing between a big wedding or an elopement. If you’d like to get married outdoors somewhere other than a traditional venue, chances are you’ll need to get a permit, and that permit will have group size restrictions. Most outdoor locations limit groups to 10-15 people except for larger campgrounds, day use areas, or amphitheaters, which may allow up to 60-75 people. In general, though, having an outdoor adventure wedding means you’ll need to stick to a small group of only your closest loved ones—then you can meet up with everyone else later (or not!).

West Coast Elopement Photographer

You made it through! I hope that by now, you feel ready to decide between a large wedding and a small elopement, knowing which one is going to be the best fit for you + your partner and your dream celebration. Remember that no matter WHAT, your big day will be so beautiful and memorable as long as you bring the focus back to the two of you and your love for one another!

And once you’ve decided on what kind of day you want + are ready to hire somebody to document it, I’d be so stoked to chat with you. Even if you’re unsure still, definitely reach out and I’ll be more than happy to help walk you through your options, and give you my best advice based on my firsthand wedding and elopement experience. Take a look through my website here, and if you feel like we’re a match made in heaven, then reach out to me at this page—I can’t wait to help you dream up your perfect day 🙂

How to Choose Between A Big Wedding & A Small Elopement

Read the latest posts