Wedding timelines can be confusing when you’ve never done one—even if you’ve attended a lot of wedding days you probably haven’t paid much attention to how long each individual aspect lasted (barring the rare occasion that you end up an hour-long ceremony indoors without air conditioning on a 102 degree day, which nobody forgets). So today I’m going try and shed some light on how to keep your wedding day moving, no matter what kind of wedding you’re having.
It’s worth noting that wedding timelines are a guideline, not canon. As I tell all of my clients, it’s the extremely rare wedding that hits every single point at the minute it’s supposed to. We extend cocktail hour because people are having fun (and/or the kitchen is running late). We move up the first dance because everyone finished eating early. We move last call out thirty minutes because we were able to start breaking down early and know we have time. Starting and ending the wedding on time are key—hitting everything in the middle in the approximate right order is important, but you usually have to adjust a little to fit the particular set of people in attendance.
Wedding Day Timeline With a 4pm Start time
Because the 4pm ceremony time, 10pm reception end (with both ceremony and reception in the same venue), with secular ceremony and photos beforehand is one of the most common formats I work with, so I’m going to start with that.
- 10:00am—Hair and Makeup/Getting ready
- 12:00–2:00pm—Most vendors arrive for setup
- 2:00pm—Wedding party and family photos start
- 3:30pm—Doors open/Guests begin to arrive/Pre-ceremony music starts
- 4:00pm—Invite time
- 4:15pm—Ceremony starts
- 4:35pm—Ceremony ends
- 4:40pm—Cocktail hour starts
- 5:45pm—Move guests into dinner
- 6:00pm—Buffet opens/Dinner served
- 6:20pm—All guests have food
- 7:30pm—First dance
- 7:35pm—General dancing music starts
- 8:00pm—Second set of pre-sunset portraits
- 9:45pm—Last call
- 9:55pm—Music off
- 10:00pm—Guests depart
- 11:00pm—Breakdown done, all staff departs
MORNING WEDDING Timeline
Morning weddings are lovely, and until recently were actually pretty much the norm, Also—who doesn’t love brunch food? Or an excuse to drink champagne. Here’s a sample morning wedding timeline:
- 7:00am—Hair and makeup starts
- 8:30am—Vendors arrive/Setup starts
- 9:00am—First look and couple’s portraits
- 9:30am—Family pictures
- 9:30am—Guests begin to arrive
- 10:00am—Invite time
- 10:15 am—Ceremony starts
- 10:45am—Ceremony concludes
- 10:45am—Cocktail “hour” starts/Additional family photos
- 11:30am—Brunch starts
- 1:00pm—First dance
- 1:30pm—Cake cutting/Dessert
- 2:45pm—Couple departs
- 3:00pm—Guests depart
- 3:00pm—Breakdown commences
- 4:00pm—All vendors out
EARLY AFTERNOON WEDDING Timeline
Afternoon weddings are a happy medium, and they can work especially well for all-outdoor events. Not only do you not have to get up super early, but afternoon weddings still leave enough time for just the two of you to go out for dinner. (Seriously, if your reception is a meal other than dinner, and you’re not planning on hanging out with your guests later, please build room in your budget to take yourselves out to a lovely meal somewhere.) This is also a very kid-friendly timeline, which may be important to you if there are lots of small people in your life:
- 9:00am—Hair and makeup starts
- 9:30am—Vendors arrive/Setup starts
- 9:30am—Getting ready photos start
- 10:00am—First look and couple’s portraits
- 10:45am—Family pictures
- 11:00am—Guests begin to arrive
- 1:00pm—Invite time
- 1:15pm—Ceremony starts
- 1:35pm—Ceremony concludes
- 1:40pm—Cocktail “hour” starts/Additional family photos
- 2:30pm—Lunch starts
- 3:30pm—First dance
- 5:00pm—Cake cutting/Dessert
- 6:15pm—Couple departs
- 6:30pm—Guests depart
- 6:30pm—Breakdown commences
- 7:30pm—All vendors out
LATER EVENING WEDDING Timeline
I love a good evening party myself, so if you want people to party until midnight, then a later-in-the-evening wedding is a good bet. It should be noted that the evening wedding tends not to be particularly kid friendly, so if you have a large number of little ones you’d like to include in your festivities, then an evening wedding may not be the best option for you (few kids are going to make it to a dinner that’s past their bedtime without a meltdown…). Of course the biggest win from an evening wedding, as far as I’m concerned, is that you can start your wedding day off by sleeping in! Here’s how that would look:
- 1:00pm—Hair and makeup start
- 4:30pm—Vendors arrive for setup
- 4:30pm—Pre-ceremony photos
- 5:30pm—Guests begin to arrive/Couple arrives
- 6:30pm—Invite time
- 6:45pm—Ceremony starts
- 7:00pm—Ceremony ends/Guests move to cocktail hour
- 8:00pm—Guests move to dinner
- 9:30pm—Cake cutting/Dessert served/Toasts
- 11:45pm—End time/Guests out
- 12:45am—Breakdown done/Vendors depart
OPEN HOUSE RECEPTION Timeline
Maybe you’re having a small wedding, or a private religious ceremony, but still want to celebrate with your broader community. Or your wedding is far away from where you grew up, so you want to do a second reception for your childhood and family friends. Enter the open house reception. The beautiful thing about an open house reception is that it can kind of be anything you want. Some examples of what it can look like:
- 2:00pm–5:00pm—Cake, champagne, and punch. People will drop by, say hi, have some cake—done!
- 4:00pm–9:00pm—Hors d’oeuvres, wine and beer, cheese and fruit platters. People will come for a little longer, linger a little longer, but still not expect a full party or wedding.
The key is to call it an open house and put the end time (along with the start time) on the invitation. That way people know exactly what to expect, and they know that they should just plan on dropping by for an hour or so. “Please join us in celebrating the recent marriage of Maude and Pat at an open house reception. 4:00–9:00pm on Saturday, March 30, 2013, at the home of The Smiths, 123 Main Street, Oakland, California.”
COCKTAIL PARTY STYLE RECEPTION Timeline
I will admit that this is actually my favorite type of wedding reception, probably because cocktail parties are my favorite types of parties. For a cocktail style reception you don’t need tables or seating for everyone, although you should have some scattered throughout, particularly if you’re going to have older guests. The key is continuous rounds of food, with some heavier things around “dinner” time, and a menu that consists of food that can be eaten standing up (so, no knives, but forks are fine!) and served on smaller plates (because, big plates are awkward when you have to hold them standing up). A cocktail reception might look something like the following:
- 3:00pm—Vendors arrive for setup
- 4:30pm—Guests begin to arrive
- 5:00pm—Invite time
- 5:15pm—Ceremony starts
- 5:30pm—Ceremony ends
- 5:30pm—First round of food comes out/Bar opens
- 5:30pm—Music starts inside
- 6:30pm—Pre-sunset portraits
- 6:45pm—“Dinner” rounds of food come out
- 7:30pm—First dance
- 8:00pm—Couple’s “Thank You” toast followed by cake cutting
- 9:00pm—Couple and guests depart
- 10:00pm—Breakdown done/Vendors out
Separate Ceremony and Reception Times
Sometimes having a time gap between the ceremony and reception is inevitable—the religious venue won’t schedule ceremonies after a certain time of day, or you simply can’t schedule back to back ceremonies and receptions at your two venues due to availability. While not always ideal, gaps aren’t that uncommon, or even that difficult to deal with. The first thing to think about (as with most parts of your wedding) is guest comfort. Do most of your guests live within a short driving distance? Or are they staying in nearby hotels? Are there things to do (coffee shops, museums, shopping) around one or both of your sites? Make sure your guests don’t have to spend a “gap” sitting in their cars in the parking lot, or awkwardly hanging out in the lobby of your reception venue waiting for it to start.
In general, if you have to have a gap I think the ideal amount of time is about two to three hours, assuming that both venues and the hotels are within a half hour of each other. This actually gives people enough time to say, go and hang out and get some coffee, or go back to their hotel room to change/take a short nap, or check out some local galleries and stores. The one hour gap is the, I have to say it, worst. It’s not enough time to actually do anything, but too much time to… not do anything. So, if your reason for a gap is that you want to do photos after the ceremony but not miss cocktail hour, the solution is to do a one and a half to two hour cocktail hour. Because asking guests to stand around with nothing to do and nothing to eat or drink is just not very hospitable.
Here’s a sample of a wedding timeline with a two-hour gap between the ceremony and reception:
- 9:00am—Hair and Makeup/Getting ready
- 11:00am–1:00pm—Vendors arrive for ceremony setup
- 12:00pm—Wedding party and family photos start
- 1:30pm—Doors open/Guests begin to arrive/Pre-ceremony music starts
- 2:00pm—Ceremony invite time
- 2:15pm—Ceremony starts
- 3:00pm—Ceremony ends
- 3:00pm—Vendors start to arrive for reception set up
- 3:30pm—Guests gone from ceremony site
- 4:00pm—Ceremony site cleaned up/vendors depart
- 5:00pm—Reception invite time
- 5:00pm—Cocktail hour starts
- 5:30pm—All guests onsite
- 6:30pm—Move guests into dinner
- 6:45pm—Buffet opens/Dinner served
- 7:00pm—All guests have food
- 8:00pm—First dance
- 8:05pm—General dancing music starts
- 8:05pm—Second set of pre-sunset portraits
- 9:45pm—Last call
- 9:55pm—Music off
- 10:00pm—Guests depart
- 11:00pm—Breakdown done, all staff departs
Tips To Make This All Go Smoothly
Invite Time vs. Start Time
The “invite” time is the time on your invitation. The earliest guests will show up about half an hour before this, so be prepared for that. And then there are the late guests. No matter the size of your guest list, you can put money on the fact that ten of them will be around ten minutes late, even if they’re all staying down the street from the venue. Do yourself a favor and plan on starting the ceremony fifteen minutes after your invite time. There’s nothing more awkward than a late arrival standing at the back of the aisle because the bridesmaids are walking down.
The receiving line seems to have gone out of style, it lets you greet all (or almost all) of your guest individually while also letting you actually sit down to eat a meal (since the other popular way to do this is to go around to tables during dinner) and, if you have two photographers at your wedding, is a great way to get photos of you with many of your guests. My favorite time to do the receiving line is from cocktail hour into dinner—post yourselves at a convenient transition point (aka, a doorway) when you have about a half hour of cocktail hour to go, and have someone be in charge of gently herding guests through you to dinner—you take about a minute greeting/hugging/fist bumping everyone as they come into the dining room, and then hey, it’s time to eat!
Timing for dinner depends largely on 1) what type of food service you’re having (the most common options being buffet, family style, and plated) and 2) how large your guest list is. It takes about twenty minutes for one hundred guests to get through a buffet. Plated courses are usually spaced about forty-five minutes apart. And family style also takes about fifteen-twenty minutes for one hundred guests to be served. Plan accordingly—I highly suggest starting with a minimum of bread on the table to give guests something to snack on while they wait for their turn at the food, although plated salads are also a great way to start out an otherwise buffet meal for the same reason. And of course, always discuss timing with whoever is actually serving your food—they should have the best idea for your particular menu.
I really encourage people to do toasts during dinner—you have a captive audience, and people are in a headspace to be attentive, plus you don’t have to carve separate time out of the day for them to happen. Note: Make sure the first person to give a toast tells all of the guests to please continue to eat while people are speaking! Also tell the catering staff that they should continue to serve/clear/etc. while people are speaking (they’re good at doing this discreetly), and have your photographer to go through the buffet line first.
Note what time it’s going to happen! (There are lots of places online that will tell you—I personally use this site, possibly because I love the name, but I also find it to be totally accurate.) You’re going to want to think about lighting, especially if your event is happening partially outdoors. And also…
Whether or not you opt for an “official” photographed first look, the truth is that a lot of couples these days tend to do formal portraits before the ceremony, because otherwise you’re stuck wrangling people during cocktail hour, which a) means they’re less compliant and b) you miss out on mingling with your guests/stuffing seared shrimp in your mouth. Also, I always suggest a second set of portraits right before sunset for two reasons—the light is totally different, and gorgeous (they don’t call it golden hour for nothing) and you’re also in a totally different space emotionally—the ceremony is over, you may have had a glass of champagne, and you’re married, as opposed to about to get married in an hour. You really only need to budget ten to fifteen minutes for these, and you should plan on it being just the two of you and your primary photographer. This mini session also has the added benefit of giving you a short break away from the crowds.
Weddings With Photos After The Ceremony
But hey, maybe one or both of you is against taking photos before the ceremony—how do you get them in after? The extended cocktail hour is your friend. I’d encourage you to schedule the ceremony about thirty minutes earlier than you normally would (so, set it for 3:30pm instead of 4:00pm), or dinner thirty minutes later, or both, thereby giving yourself at a ninety minute to two hour cocktail hour that you’ll be able to join in for at least half an hour. Remember if you do this that you’ll need enough drinks and snacks to feed your group for the extended length, so plan ahead (or talk with your caterer) as needed.
Also make sure that everyone who’s going to be in photos knows ahead of time, and goes from the ceremony to the photo site. Get extended family photos out of the way first, immediate family second, wedding party third, and then do your couple portraits last—the key is to release the most people to cocktail hour as quickly as possible. A well-thought-out shot list will be your friend here—take the time to sit down with your photographer and make it, and try to condense the family portraits as much as possible. (Do you really need individual portraits of you with every single person you’re related to? Probably not.)
While this rule seems to have gotten lost over the generations, traditionally it’s considered acceptable to leave a wedding once the cake has been cut—at that point you know that nothing else major is going to happen (it’s just partying from there on out) and hey, maybe you have a sitter to get home to, or just want to be in bed to watch the ten o’clock news. And while you may not be aware of this rule, if you have any guests over sixty-years-old then they do, and they will wait for you to cut the cake (or alternative dessert. I’m personally a pie girl myself). So don’t wait until too late to do it. I mean, no one wants to leave without a piece of cake (or, again, pie).
The universal signal that things are about to wrap up or wind down. You don’t have to make it official, but if you do it can be a helpful to sign to people that they should start preparing (mentally) to leave.
If your venue has strict timing rules, or noise restrictions, or you’re paying a staff hourly and they’re going to go into overtime or time-and-a-half at some point, don’t forget about breakdown. While generally faster than set up (it’s a lot quicker to toss decorations into a box than it is to take them out and perfectly arrange them) I rarely see a breakdown that’s under an hour, and sometimes they end up in the one to two hour range. Think about all of the things that are going to need to happen once the lights go on and how much time that will take, and plan the end of the night accordingly.
Weddings With No Firm End Time
Maybe your wedding is at your house, or at a venue you’ve rented for the whole weekend, or some other magical place that will let you stay as late as you want! How do you wrap things up? There are four signals to guests that a party is over: 1) the bar closes, 2) the music stops, 3) the lights come on, 4) people start cleaning up around them. When deployed together only the very, very densest of people would miss the signal that it’s time for them to leave.
But maybe you don’t want people to leave! That’s totally fine, and please invite me. You probably will want your event staff, if you have them, to leave at some point though, unless you’ve budgeted for a lot of overtime pay. At some point the bar can become self-serve, the DJ or band can switch to an iPod (or maybe was an iPod from the start), and the kitchen can close or the caterers can leave, but leave behind some trays of leftover dinner food, or big bowls of chips and salsa. (Let’s be real, if you want people to stay and drink until two in the morning, you probably want to provide them with something to snack on.)
“But really, I know we’re going to want to party until 1am!” you say. Dude—me too. But we’re in the minority. But as someone who’s coordinated over a hundred weddings I will tell you—I can count the number of weddings where there has been a critical mass of guests still wanting to go after 10:30pm on my fingers, and two of them took place on New Year’s Eve. And most of the rest had 6:00pm or later ceremonies. Six hours is about the most that most weddings guests have in them. That said, should you make everyone go home at 10pm? Hell no. Move people to an afterparty. My favorite way to do this, because it’s the easiest, is to pick a nearby bar ahead of time, spread the word, and whoever wants to go can go. Do you have to host (as in, pay for) the afterparty drinks? Definitely not. You certainly can, and it would be super nice, but after paying for everyone’s drinks for six hours, you’re off the hook (and I will tell you—if you walk into a bar in a wedding dress there’s definitely no one in the world who’s going to make you pay for you own drinks!). Also—if the majority of your guests are staying in the same hotel, that hotel bar can be a great option for this, and they may allow you to bring extra wedding champagne in for a reduced corkage fee.