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There are a lot of misconceptions about eloping, but one of the biggest is that an elopement is just a quick ceremony – get in, take a few photos, get out. Because eloping is for couples who don’t want to invest time, money, or effort into their wedding day. It’s for couples who just want a quick way to get married… right? Well maybe that’s what eloping used to be about – back in the days where it was Vegas chapels and drunken decisions – but those days are long gone now. You can read all about what eloping means today here, but in this guide I’ll be talking all about elopement timelines – how to make them, what goes into a timeline, and the answer to the question of “how long is an elopement?”
How Long is an Elopement?
Before you get into creating your elopement timeline, you need to figure out how long your elopement is and how many hours actually go into the timeline. While some people still think of elopements as short and sweet, here’s why I think your elopement should be an all day event!
You Deserve to Celebrate Your Union
Let’s get one thing straight: eloping isn’t any less meaningful than a traditional wedding. Read that again. The important part of a wedding day isn’t applause after your ceremony, or line dancing, or being tagged in Instagram stories all weekend– it’s the day that you and your partner commit yourselves to one another. That’s all that really matters, and you deserve to celebrate that however you please.
Being intentional about how you want your wedding day to go, and choosing to elope because it actually reflects who you are as a couple, doesn’t make your day any less important– and it certainly doesn’t mean your elopement deserves any less care, attention, or celebration than a big wedding! This is still the day you get married to the love of your life. And if anything, I’d say the fact that you’ve decided to focus on what actually matters makes elopements even more meaningful. Traditional wedding coverage lasts 8, 10, even 12 hours – so why should yours be any different? It’s not just a ceremony – it’s an entire day dedicated to celebrating the beginning of your marriage.
Besides, from a photography standpoint, I’d argue that you’d want more coverage of an elopement than a wedding, since there aren’t any guest’s photos to remember it by! If you want to share the story of your elopement day with anybody that wasn’t there, you’ll need photos to walk them through your day.
You Should Enjoy Your Day
A lot of couples decide to elope because the thought of planning a big wedding and spending the day surrounded by a hundred people sounds stressful. So don’t make the mistake of only scheduling a couple of hours for your elopement day – because you’ll feel rushed, and stressed out by any curveball or slight delay, when you should be spending the day enjoying yourself, and cherishing every moment.
As for what moments you’ll be cherishing, that’s up to you! Imagine yourself years from now, looking back on your elopement day as the best day of your life. What did you do? What does that look like?
What Goes into an Elopement Timeline?
All right, so you’ve figured out that the answer to “how long is an elopement?” isn’t “a ceremony and a few photos.” But, what do couples do on their elopement day? How can your elopement take more than a few hours?
Here’s what happens during an elopement day!
Your elopement day begins with getting ready, which is, in my opinion, an extremely underrated part of the day. Getting ready is truly one of my very favorite parts of an elopement day to capture! The excited butterflies, the anticipation building. Your last few moments before a hugely important life change. Looking back at the photos from this part of the day, you’ll see yourself doing your hair (or getting it done), and putting on your wedding attire – but you’ll also remember how you felt before your vows.
You’ll also see what your partner looked like during the few hours of the day you might have been apart – how they couldn’t stop smiling, how they put the finishing touches on their vows, how excited they were to marry you.
If you aren’t getting ready together, I recommend doing a first look! This is where the two of you first get to see each other all glammed up in your elopement attire. There are a few ways to do this, but normally, one or both partners will turn around (with one walking up, or both of you standing standing back-to-back) Especially if you’re eloping with guests, this can be a really great way to get some time to yourselves before the ceremony – so many couples say their nerves melted away after they saw each other for the first time.
If you want to keep things a little more traditional and wait to see each other until the ceremony, you can also do a first touch (stand on opposite sides of a door so you can hold hands and talk without seeing each other), write each other letters to read, or give each other a gift.
The main event! When people ask “how long is an elopement,” they’re often picturing just the ceremony – which is why they can’t believe an elopement can last all day! The ceremony itself can be anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour long. If you’re keeping things simple with reading vows and exchanging rings, it can go by pretty quick. But if you’re incorporating something like knot tying, handfasting, or any kind of cultural or religious tradition, it can take a little longer. If you have an officiant for your elopement, ask them how long they think it’ll take!
Photos With Guests
If you have guests, you’ll usually take some photos with them after the ceremony. Of course, how long this will be in your elopement timeline depends on how many guests you have! I usually recommend about 30 minutes for this portion, unless you have a big family or a longer guest list.
The great thing about eloping is that your couple’s photos aren’t going to be the traditional “stand over there and smile” kinds – we’ll be taking photos throughout the day, so that when you look at them you remember the actual moments of your elopement day – time spent exploring and celebrating your marriage, not time spent posing. I recommend keeping this in mind as you make your timeline – budget some more time so that you can stop for photos throughout the day, and some time after the ceremony for a few formal portraits.
Adventures and Activities
This is the part that truly makes each elopement day unique. Your day should reflect the two of you – so think about what would make this the best day of your life. What do you want to do on the day you get married? It can be a hike, a boat tour, a helicopter ride, a picnic, a small post-elopement reception with your guests… anything you can think of!
Sample Elopement Timelines
Now that you know what goes into a timeline, let’s see some samples! And these are pretty bare-bones, in that they aren’t jam-packed with activities.
Half Day Elopement – Just the Couple
1:00 Hair and makeup begins; getting ready & detail photos
2:15 Drive to trailhead
2:30 Start hiking
3:30 Arrive at summit, change into wedding attire
3:45 First look
4:15 Photos & exploring
5:45 Picnic & champagne
6:45 Head back down
7:45 Return to Airbnb
8:00 Post-elopement hot tub session & snacks
9:00 Coverage ends
Full Day Elopement With Family
9:00 Hair and makeup begins; getting ready & detail photos
11:00 First touch, read letters from each other
11:30 Drive to ceremony location
1:00 Family photos
1:30 Lunch with family
2:30 Family drives to Airbnb Couple takes time to themselves, couple’s photos
4:30 Drive back to Airbnb
5:30 Reception – first dance, dinner, cake cutting, champagne pop
7:30 Family starts saying goodbyes
8:00 Sunset photos
9:00 Coverage ends
Elopement Timeline Tips
When you’re creating your elopement timeline, here are a few things to keep in mind…
Add Extra Time
As a rule of thumb, people tend to underestimate how long an elopement day is and how long everything will take. It’s always better to have extra time than not enough, and leaving some buffer room between activities or events will save you a lot of stress! In case of traffic, or if it takes everyone a little while to get out the door, you’ll have plenty of time and won’t have to worry.
Plus, adding a little extra padding allows you to take time to just be. Enjoy yourselves, and take it all in.
While I do recommend even at least a basic elopement timeline to make sure you and everyone else knows what’s what, this isn’t the same as a traditional wedding timeline! Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, sometimes you see an overlook you want to stop at while you’re driving – so don’t be afraid to be spontaneous.
Think of the timeline as an outline, not a strict set of rules (unless you’re meeting your guests somewhere or need to be at the park at a certain time according to your permit, but in general – this day is all about you and doing whatever feels right!)
Hire an Elopement Photographer
With your full day elopement, you should also have your photographer there for the entire thing! Each part of your day is important, and you deserve to have every moment documented, so that when you look back on your photos, you see the story of your entire day.
As a photographer who specializes in elopements, my mission is to make sure every couple gets the day of their dreams – and that looks different for everyone! So I’ll be there to help you through the planning process, which includes brainstorming what kind of elopement experience will work for the two of you, and creating a custom timeline. If you have any questions, or are ready to start planning, contact me!
Hi, I’m Marla! I’m based in the Pacific Northwest and specialize in photographing elopements, aiming to create a stress-free experience for all adventure levels. In other words, whether you want to hang out by a lake all day or trek 8 miles into the mountains, I’m here for it!
I help you navigate the entire planning process, from choosing your perfect location to finding the best vendors, creating a timeline of activities and helping you apply for the right permits. I’d love to photograph your adventure! Click here to see more Washington resources.