A Complete Wedding Day Timeline, Six Ways

Expert tips to keep your wedding on track

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.

Guests mingling before a wedding with the text: creating an awesome wedding timeline

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
  • 6:30pm—Toasts
  • 7:30pm—First dance
  • 7:35pm—General dancing music starts
  • 8:00pm—Second set of pre-sunset portraits
  • 8:26pm—Sunset
  • 8:30pm—Dessert
  • 9:45pm—Last call
  • 9:55pm—Music off
  • 10:00pm—Guests depart
  • 11:00pm—Breakdown done, all staff departs


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
  • 12:15pm—Toasts
  • 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


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
  • 3:00pm—Toasts
  • 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


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
  • 9:45pm—Dancing
  • 11:45pm—End time/Guests out
  • 12:45am—Breakdown done/Vendors depart


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.”


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
  • 7:07pm—Sunset
  • 7:15pm—Toasts
  • 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
  • 7:15pm—Toasts
  • 8:00pm—First dance
  • 8:05pm—General dancing music starts
  • 8:05pm—Second set of pre-sunset portraits
  • 8:26pm—Sunset
  • 8:45pm—Dessert
  • 9:45pm—Last call
  • 9:55pm—Music off
  • 10:00pm—Guests depart
  • 11:00pm—Breakdown done, all staff departs

Pink Line

wedding day timeline: frequently asked questions

what is the invite 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.

should we have a receiving line?

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!

when should serve dinner at our wedding?

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.

when do wedding toasts happen?

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.

when is sunet on our wedding day?

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…

when should we take wedding photos?

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.

can we take wedding 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.)

when should we serve dessert?

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).

what is the last call at a wedding?

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.

who is in charge of wedding breakdown?

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.

does our wedding have to have an 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.)

should we have a wedding after party?

“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.

Next, the APW wedding planning spreadsheets Can Help You to organize the hell out of your wedding, and the #APWPLANNER Will Give You even more detail.

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  • This is incredibly helpful. We are having a 4:30 ceremony with a 10:30 reception end time, so I am bookmarking this one for later!

  • Brenda

    Love it! We’re having a 6 pm ceremony, reception in the same venue, and guests have to be gone by midnight. I was starting to get concerned that everything would be too rushed but by moving your timeline back two hours it looks like it will work. Plus we’re having a buffet style and plan on merging the end of dinner with the beginning of dancing.

    Do you have any special tips for late evening weddings and short prep time? The venue only lets us set up an hour before (they say it will be fine, and I’m not having super involved decorations).

    • Catcat

      ARE YOU ME? Literally everything you said is my April 6 wedding. This post is extremely helpful!

    • I say try and get friend reinforcements to come a little earlier to help with set up, even if they aren’t in the wedding party or otherwise involved. My friend asked five of us to come to the rescue of her parents/siblings when their set up time got cut shorter than expected, and it ended up being a really fun pre-wedding bonding thing for all of us.

      • Brenda

        That’s my plan….. I think we’ll be doing couple photos for the hour before the ceremony, so I’m planning to delegate set-up to our wedding party and parents. Since it’s really going to be a matter of hang some bunting and put some flowers in some vases I think it will be okay. I’m glad to hear other people start later in the evening too! It was dictated by the venue’s booking rules but I think it will be fun.

      • Celeste

        Yes, ask friends and family for help with set-up. I just HAD to have paper lanterns, which was a pretty involved set-up with fishing line and LEDs and everything. I asked some family members to come early to set them up, and those family members invited other family members as well, which was so sweet. All of the ladies had to leave to get our hair and nails done, so the menfolk and the other family members stayed for about 2 hours setting it up and I am such a control freak I wasn’t sure if it would turn out. But when I walked into the venue and saw how beautifully they had set up the lanterns, my jaw dropped! It was so touching to see how my future in-laws and cousins really came through for us and they arranged the extra lanterns in these sort of sculptures on some of the walls and tied them into trees and bushes, I never would have thought of it and it was so cool! So ask for help and don’t be afraid to relinquish control, because people can amaze you with their generosity and kindness and that is the best thing to experience on your wedding day.

    • Set-up and (more detailed) breakdown tips are going to be covered in a future post, so keep an eye out!

    • Same here. Our wedding will be on the summer solstice for 2014 (yeah! longest day!) at a museum. The timeline we were given is that the load-in can happen starting around 4, set-up an start when the museum closes at 5 (some areas, like the rooftop garden, can start 15 minutes earlier), and then the event must be done at 11 and clean-up at midnight.

      So we should have enough time for everything (and decoration can be minimal, since the place is already visually amazing) but it seems like a very wise idea to have a carefully balanced schedule.

  • Casey

    This is SO helpful as I just started working on my own timeline (4:30-10:30 pm). It’s a little nerdy but I love this kind of stuff!

  • Amy

    Oh where was this series when I was trying to muddle through and just guess about everything! I think we ended up with a pretty solid timeline for our 11am wedding with photos afterwards and afternoon reception at a different location. I’d love to see your version though!

  • This was perfect timing(haha, It’s kind of a pun because the post is about schedules and timelines? Or maybe I’m just being easily amused because it’s Friday afternoon….)! I was just stressing about this! We’ve started our first round of discussions about our wedding, and I’ve been trying to figure out how long we need a venue for. This is really quite helpful.

    I can’t wait to see the post for daytime weddings. Would those be applicable to morning/brunch weddings as well? I think I’ve been thinking about doing a brunch wedding, but I have no idea what the timeline would be. Plus I might not want to do it if I have to get up too early…. We’ll see.

    • meg

      It will apply. We did a morning wedding, and you DO have to get up early. But I loved it, would do again.

      • Honestly, it would probably be more of an issue for him to get up early instead of me. :) I know lots of people who recommend pictures before the ceremony (that’s what we were planning on) but is that feasible for a morning wedding? Or did you take yours after/during the reception? Or no portraits at all?

        • meg

          Oh, we definitely took them first. I feel that as the hosts, you need to be at the party… and um, I WANTED to be at the most expensive party I’ll probably ever throw.

    • Teresa

      I was at the hair salon at 5:30am for our 11am ceremony/brunch wedding. My girls joined me around 7, we got to the venue at 9:30 to get dressed, started pictures around 10:00 and were lined up to walk down the aisle around 11:05. Our reception was over at 4 and we left the venue aroun 4:45–so much hugging!!! I loved it, but you will absolutely have to wake up early!

      • Thanks for the timeline. I think if we’re really excited about it, we’ll go for it. Otherwise, it might be nice to have a slow paced morning (I’ll probably be up at 5 because of nerves anyways…)

      • meg

        WHOA. I was up around 6:30 for our 10:15 wedding. So you don’t have to get up THAT early if you don’t want to.

        And we were on the road together by 3… wheeeee! (The evening was the best part).

        • Teresa

          My hair dresser set the time! She didn’t want me to have to rush at all and I am glad she did that! Though, when my mom woke me up at 4:30, I didn’t feel glad AT ALL.

    • Rachel Wilkerson

      Also excited for the morning wedding/brunch ceremony timeline! I’m a morning person so I don’t care but I am worried about how much we can pack in before a 10 AM ceremony.

    • Kristin

      We’re having a brunch wedding in June, and we also worried about the timeline. I know it’s not for everyone, but we’re starting the day with brunch at 10am, and then doing the ceremony afterwards (2pm), followed by wine/dessert/mingling until 5pm. We REALLY wanted to serve brunch, and obviously trying to get the ceremony in before then would have been…difficult.

      • Jen

        Reading this post super late, obviously, but this is a brilliant idea and I love it so much!! How did it go? (Congrats, by the way!)

  • New England Ana

    This is sooo helpful! We’re in the ceremony/reception separate sites situation, on a Sunday (so I’m guessing no after party for most of our guests) and have been bogged down trying to figure out how much time to allot to the ceremony and travel to the reception. Our reception site charges extra if anyone arrives more than 30 minutes before the official beginning, but I also don’t want to set the reception start time so early that it’s time we’re wasting having appetizers and music for no guests.

    • One more sara

      Heyooo sunday wedding! My fiance is worried about our party lasting kong enough (his aunts and uncles tend to not leave until one beer after the lights come on). But at $4 pp for the extra hour of open bar (beer/wine) i’m thinking ending the reception at 11 and moving to the hotel bar until 1 (the legal limit for serving alcohol in our state) would be the way to go. Plus the smaller bar would make the party more dense/casual/better.

  • Awesome sample timeline & advice- well done! My best advice to Brides & Grooms is to let go of the timeline on your wedding day; put the timeline on a clipboard & hand it off to a friend/bridesmaid/wedding planner to take care of the timing. You should be relaxing & enjoying your day, not stressing over timing & details.

    • Celeste

      Absolutely! I handed the schedule to my sister/Maid of Honor the day before and she handled it so well, I didn’t have to think about it except for once when we had to change some things around and she asked what we wanted to do. And she had plenty of fun, the vendors took care of a lot of the timing once the food started being served.

  • Caroline

    This is so helpful. I love your posts!!!
    We’re having either an 11 o’clock ceremony with lunch or a one o’clock ceremony with hearty appetizers. We are having it at my mom’s house, so I’m not really sure about wrap up. There isn’t really a finish time. I feel like ideally, we’d clean up, then have an after party by hanging out there, drinking leftover wedding beer and maybe everyone pitching in for a pizza or eating leftovers for dinner if we get hungry and last that long, but I’m not really sure how that would work. Also the logistics of when you have no firm exit time. (And how do you signal the end of the party?)

    • meg

      Ha. Elizabeth might disagree with me (I’m a no afterparty go get laid kind of girl), but you signal the end of a wedding by leaving. It’s traditional, and send offs are the best (also, you can do them even if you are going to meet up at the afterparty).

      I’ve been to weddings where the bride was cleaning up in her wedding dress as you left, and it felt sort of sad (that particular wedding did, at least). You want to at least imagine the couple running off to happily start their marriage ;)

      • Funny enough, we did a bit of both of these.

        To get everyone out of the way of the caterers/clean up folks, we had an impromptu parade (instead of a send off) out to the nearby fire pit, and we hung out for a bit longer and roasted marshmallows.

        Then came escaping the after party to go get laid/get out of wedding clothes, and we were still keyed up so we came back for more late night after-after partying by the fire pit.

      • HA! I’m a last-to-leave girl, always, and the parties that I throw myself never last long enough for me, so for me the entire point of having a wedding at home would be so that the party could go until two in the morning (um, I consistently come out 30/30 “E” on Myers Briggs. Socializing is my jam.)

        BUT, this is a great question, and I will definitely cover this, and end-time logistics in general, next week! I’ve done a lot of at home (and other) weddings without firm end times, including one that was… a 1pm ceremony followed by heavy appetizers and cake and then a pizza and leftover beer after party at the house with the sort of “inner circle” family and friends that went until about midnight. It can be done, and be lovely.

        • meg

          I’m a last to leave girl too. But, uh, the REAL party at a wedding happens afterwards in your newly married glee. I mean, the party was nice and all, but…….. achem. Some things are better even than a party. In my opinion, wedding nights are one of them.

          We considered joining friends for drinks after all that though. (Note that I said “considered.” We didn’t.)

          But the emotional climax of leaving the wedding was one of the very best parts. I wouldn’t have given that up for a little more hangout time, for sure.

          • Celeste

            Yeah we considered joining friends for drinks afterwards as well and then promptly fell asleep ;)
            We had a very drunken afterparty the next night and I fell asleep at midnight (not at all in character for me, as I’ve always been a night owl)! Weddings are tiring!

        • Caroline

          That’s definitely a big appeal, that we can party as long as we want, with no end time. The best part of a party is the last hour, when like 5 people are left. I don’t really mean we have to clean the whole thing up, but like get the caterer to move out the rented tables, etc… then hang around. I’ll have to think on this. I definitely can see the advantages of leaving right away, but I suspect that we will want to party more. We’ll have all the honeymoon for sex, and 2 am sex wouldn’t be a new thing anyways (Umm, that’s when I’m always most in the mood anyways, 2 am after we’re way too late to be going to bed, exhausted, and have to get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow. Thanks libido, for exacerbating my sleep deprivation). But we are inviting very close friends who we now see only every few years, so we will want to maximize the time with them.

          I want us to have the flexibility to do either. To go off on our own, or hang out with friends.

          • Beaula

            In Belgium its tradition to party all night and whoever is left has breakfast at the grooms parents!!

      • Laurel

        This depends a LOT on your clean-up sitch. If you have paid help or can leave the clean-up til the morning, leaving is fine. IME when you’re asking guests to help with clean-up it works best when the couple participates (and when the clean-up is pretty low-key).

        • meg

          Our friends and family cleaned up our wedding, and they would have murdered us in cold blood if we’d stayed to help. The older generation in particular believes in the wedding night. But really, our friends did too, big time.

          Never underestimate what a big deal weddings are, and how when it gets right down to it, on the day of, people want to make it happen for you. I’d happily stay and scrub dishes for 100 on a friends wedding night, as long as they took off.

          • Laurel

            That is one million percent not my experience, at my wedding or anyone else’s. Our friends were unbelievably generous and helpful for our wedding. I still think they would have felt taken advantage of if they’d needed to do major clean-up that night. (Among other things, the people we’re closest to had already spent most of the previous day helping us.)

            There’s a narrative on the diy wedding interwebs that people will want to help you in major, time-consuming, high-effort ways. While there’s a lot of truth to it, it can go pretty badly wrong. People want to help, they want to celebrate, they want to do nice things for you, but they don’t necessarily want to buy an expensive new outfit or give you $150/plate china or wash dishes in their party clothes. (Though sometimes they do, and that’s very very very nice of them.) Weddings aren’t an imposition, but you can ask too much of the people who love you.

          • meg

            True that. But if you have a conversation early, you can work it out. IE, your mom probably wants you to leave for your wedding night (and your grandmother pretty much definitely does. Ah, generational differences) but she’s also probably not thinking about clean up. So if you walk through options, you can figure out the solution early. In our case, our family did NOT want to wash dishes in their party close and they SUPER DID NOT want us washing dishes in our party clothes once they thought that through, so, they decided to help make sure we had paid dishwashing help (catering). That said, they definitely carted gifts and flowers and decor and wanted us OUT of there.

            So talk it through. You’d be surprised how many older family members will actually be pretty scandalized by you trying to clean up your own wedding. It’s one of those (blessed) and hidden traditions.

          • Laurel

            Ha. The generational thing in my family works out pretty differently. My parents and my partner’s parents and my aunt and many of their friends had tiny courthouse or justice of the peace weddings. My parents were already a little surprised that I wanted to have an actual wedding and as far as I know had no concept that we should have a special romantic wedding night (especially since we’ve lived together for years, as they had when they got married). Not sure what my grandmothers thought — neither of them said anything on the subject.

            They definitely had some feelings about keeping clean-up from being onerous, but the caterers did most of it and we left the rest of the clean-up for the day after.

            Some of our friends, otoh, took all the flowers from the wedding up to our room. It was pretty much the sweetest most romantic thing ever.

      • Celeste

        I cleaned up in my wedding dress with the help of my family and my husband’s family because we had such a short amount of time and a lot of lanterns to take down. Just something we had to do, and it went by real quick. Since the only people still there were also cleaning up, I don’t think anybody thought it was sad, and no one told us we should leave.

        • Oh, me too! I felt sad cleaning up in my dress with my husband after everyone else had left (because it was not how I had imagined it)…I was envisioning more of a send-off and someone else cleaning up. But then we went and had our wedding night….just WAY later and more tired with more loading/unloading than imagined. Ah, reality.

  • KB


    And a quick question – any suggestions for letting older guests know that they can skedaddle if you’re not doing a cake-cutting? My fiance is absolutely adamant that we will not do any such thing (don’t ask – it’s like the ONE thing he feels strongly about), so should I just have the DJ be like “Hey, btw, help yourselves to the delicious pie on that table over there”?

    • meg

      (Yes, also they will leave anyway. Seriously.)

      • Also knowing my older relatives (grandparents and great aunts and uncles etc.) they’d help themselves to the pie/cake/cookies without having to even be told, so there’s that too!

    • Yes! “cake cutting” is really just a stand in for “dessert being served.” It will signal the same thing to those who are waiting for it to “be ok” for them to leave!

    • Erin

      We had pie and other desserts set out before the buffet even started – and people helped themselves without an invite as soon as they were done eating (which we wanted). Most of our older guests then waited through the first dance, which was fast on the heels of dinner because we didn’t do a cake cutting, and then started to slip out.

      I think part of it is that they want to wait til the couple is done with most of the scheduled things so that they can personally come say goodbye.

    • ElisabethJoanne

      We had a lot of older guests, and we arranged a timeline with cake-cutting at 7:30, which we figured was way in advance of the 8pm and 9pm our older guests often stayed out for other church events. Then we got 20 minutes ahead of our timeline.

      Half left right after dinner, around 6:30. The other half told everyone, over and over again, how good the cake was.

      Point: You can do everything “right,” and your guests will still not “get” your plan.

  • YES — thank you! Have already started taking copious notes. I had a day-of timeline already drafted, but I’m seeing how much I missed (like the timing of the cake cutting, for example). Bookmarked so I can refer back to this post a few months down the road. Thank you!

  • Sarah

    Just wanted to chime in on how much I LOVED our after party. A friend asked a local bar ahead of time if they had space for a ton of people, and they ended up giving us the place for free (she felt confident in the drinking abilities of our friends).

    While I loved my wedding, and had planned to skip the after party, in the moment I couldn’t imagine stopping the dancing when we had to break everything down at 10pm. My husband and I did meet on a dance floor :).

    We ended up dancing at the bar until about 1, then still had time for awesome hotel alone time. Many stayed until the bar closed at 4am, and ended up ordering pizza, etc.

  • Alexis

    I love this kind of advice!!! Thanks for putting this together, Elizabeth! Having a schedule like this and getting all our vendors on board with it was what finally helped me relax a little bit (only a little bit though, ha) during the planning process. Our timeline was very similar to the one above, but we actually did toasts before dinner was served which worked well because the caterer and bar had a little more time to breakdown the cocktail hour and set up the dinner buffet. Also, having a detailed timeline like this is key if your self-dj-ing!

    • Self- DJ-ing sounds like an adventure. I know APW has talked about doing your own music. Is it better to have a friend MC? Or should you take my friend’s advice, “let them be guests and enjoy the wedding,” and hire a professional?

      • I think it depends on your group of friends. A former roommate of my husband’s LOVES facilitating other people’s fun, so we’d asked him to MC the dinner/toasts/cake portion of the wedding and then to enjoy himself on the dance floor when our iPod DJ’d dancing began. He ended up having such a good time that he held onto tge mic throughout the dancing and did a sort of live sports commentary on what was happening on the floor. It was hilarious and special and he did such a great job that guests who didn’t know him thought we’d hired a pro. So if you have a friend that you suspect would have a similarly good time, ask them if it’s something they would like to take on!

        • Erin

          This is what we did. We had a cousin MC the major events, which was the first maybe 30-45 minutes of the reception, then had him set the dance playlist on ‘go’ and have fun himself.

          At one point (when only the hardcore guests remained) I even stepped behind the table to cue up a particular song I really wanted my friends to dance to. It felt fun and spontaneous rather than a pain – I’m really glad we did it!

      • Laurel

        DIY DJ-ing is not that hard, especially if you don’t have a lot of events to announce. The APW post a while ago hits the major considerations well.

      • meg

        We had a friend MC. I think it’s really helpful for guests if they know what’s happening “Hey! They’re cutting the cake, look over there.” Again, if guests feel guided, they’ll roll with a lot of stuff.

  • Jacquelyn

    Literally have my timeline open at this moment, and then this pops up. Such a wonderful resource. Thank you :)

  • Love the after-party advice! I’m planning to have one, largely because after hearing my parents’ stories about theirs (including some fairly scandalous ones they did not tell their daughters until said daughters were well and truly grown), I can’t imagine leaving the reception early like I’ve seen some couples do. Heck no, I want to keep celebrating with my friends!

    • Caroline

      Yeah, my fiancé has some EPIC stories from his friends’ afterparties. Frankly, I think an afterparty is his big motivation for having a wedding rather than getting hitched at the courthouse (well, besides the fact that it’s really important to me.) I don’t expect our afterparty, whatever it is, to have that level of ummmm… drunken craziness however, because we’ve grown up a bit, and our friends aren’t barely 21 (or under) anymore (and have learned moderation).

  • Annoymous

    Question: How does a timeline work if your ceremony and reception are really spaced out? Say the ceremony is at 10:00am and the reception is later at 6:00pm (but both in the same city (San Francisco))? Thanks so much!

    • Great question! gaps between the ceremony and reception is something I’ll cover next week!

      • Annoymous

        Awesome! Thanks so much.

        • Emily

          Great – this was exactly my question! All the weddings I’ve ever gone to were back-to-back wedding/reception using traditional venues, but due to our preferences and our budget, we’re contemplating a non-traditional reception venue for an evening cocktail party, but a mid-day wedding and cookies/punch after. It sounds great initially, but I have no idea how other people have navigated it before. I look forward to gettiing some inspiration here! (As I totally expected I would, natch)

  • AmandaInMaine

    Wedding planning date already planned for tonight– this will be super helpful! It’s simply amazing how well timed your posts have been.

  • Kess

    This is massively helpful! My only thing is, I know it’s irrational, but I can’t stand the idea of doing wedding photos before the ceremony. Silly as it may seem, I know it would bother me to look at my wedding photos later and know I wasn’t actually married yet in all those couple shots. So I had been thinking of doing an early-ish ceremony, around 1 or 2, and then just have a break with nothing planned until we arrive at the reception site for cocktails at 4:30 or 5. The reception and ceremony are going to be in different locations. I thought we could get our pictures done and maybe even a little quiet time before the party (big for an introvert like me). Has anyone ever done anything similar to this? Did it work for you? Is it too cruel to leave our guests with nothing to do for a few hours in between?

    • Speaking from limited experience, I’d say it depends on the guests. I went to a wedding with large space with nothing to do, and was fine- we used it to reconnect with friends, and since the venue was in our home town, we went to our old hang out to catch up. At the same time, my parents were a little bored, and my mom was worried about finding something to do while looking nice for the reception. Perhaps you could recommend a local coffee shop or bar for people to relax in? Often, if you give people a location, they’ll figure out the rest on their own.

    • I’m going to cover gaps between the ceremony and reception in detail next week, so keep an eye out for that!

    • I’ve shot several weddings that had huge chunks of time between the ceremony and reception. We’d do the photos, then go to their favourite bar for a drink! It was a great way for the couples to relax and unwind with their closest friends, and I never heard any complaints from the guests at the reception. Do what you want!

    • Caroline

      We’re planning on doing photography after the ceremony, but without a big gap.

      We don’t have the timeline worked out, but we’re thinking about providing good food during a cocktail hour type thing for the guests, keep the list of portraits short, and take couples portraits later in the reception. (This was recommended by a photographer we talked to.) I think it will work, although we haven’t planned it all out yet.

      • Maddie

        This can totally work and I’ve done it plenty of times. I recommend having someone who knows all the family members you’ll need for portraits (and who isn’t in the photos themselves) and assigning them to corral people as needed. That way you can shoot while folks are being fetched.

        The two issues you’ll run up doing it this way (and they aren’t prohibitive, it’s just stuff that’s caught me off guard in the past because I hadn’t expected it):

        1. People will wander off. Even if they know they are needed for photos, they’ll convince themselves there’s time for just grabbing a drink at the bar, and then 20 minutes later you’re waiting on aunt Ruth to finish the photos. In that case, a wrangler goes a long way.

        2. I’m always less worried about guests during cocktail hour than the couple. Right after the ceremony, photos can just feel like a lot of work. It’s the first time all day you get to relax, and seeing all of your friends and family mingling and enjoying themselves can be tough when you’re stuck doing formal portraits. So I think your plan of keeping the portrait list short is a great idea. And YES to couples portraits during the reception. I think this is the best time to get those in general.

        Hope any of this helps! It’s totally doable, and not a crazy undertaking.

      • Celeste

        We took photos during our cocktail hour instead of before the ceremony. We would have had to take photos after the ceremony anyway because we wanted family portraits. We were too rushed before the ceremony to have taken pictures then, but we could have moved things around and made it work if that was our plan, but my husband wanted to do it that way so he could have the “big reveal.” I’m ambivalent about it really. Keeping my wedding dress hidden was a source of stress for me, and I felt cut off before the ceremony. I wouldn’t have minded doing a “first look” photo or something, at least so I didn’t have to be all mysterious about it.
        We had a longer cocktail hour and had a family-only ceremony and invited additional friends to the reception, so we were able to make it back in time for the end of cocktail hour, but we also didn’t do a ton of portraits and it was pretty quick. I honestly wish we had gotten a few more portraits of just the two of us, but I was pretty frazzled by that point with all the emotions and just wanted to get a drink and a nibble. I recommend a wrangler as well, family members are best because they know everyone. My sister did it. It also helped that we did them right after the receiving line in the gallery where we had the ceremony, so it was out after the ceremony and then right back in for photos.

  • Does Last Call always signify it’s time to wrap up? Right that second?

    Our ceremony is going to be at 11:30 in the morning, with the reception ending at 5, and we were going to have a last call around 4, 4:15, because our venue is not a hotel/place where people can nap or otherwise sleep it off, and since we felt most people would be travelling home immediately afterwards – being a Sunday and all – (or on to mini golf with us!) we wanted to cut off the alcohol early. Is that utterly faux paz?

    • Last call generally means that the bar is going to close down in 10-15 minutes, which also generally means the party is ending. But no, people won’t rush out the door (unless you… encourage that) – often people stand around mingling for about half an hour after that happens (even if breakdown is happening around them!)

  • Love the advice re. the afterparty. While a lot of our guests cleared out when our venue kicked us off the dance floor at midnight, we had a group of 20 people who wanted to keep going because of excitement or jet lag, so we ended up doing an ad hoc afterparty at our favorite sports bar. Hands down one of my favorite memories of the wedding day. :)

  • Oh man, schedules can be like porn for me, this is great. I loved this whole post.

    Thank you for the suggestion about starting the ceremony later than the invite time. I was once late to a ceremony and it was mortifying–it was an out of town venue that neither of us knew, and even though we left the hotel VERY early to give us more than enough time to get there, we got VERY lost, and it was just, it was awful, I hate, I HATE, being late.

    The last wedding I went to, the wedding coordinator actually started ushering people down the aisle three minutes BEFORE the invite time (I know because I turned my iPhone off as soon as I saw groomsmen on the aisle happening and so I saw the time on my phone). I had gotten there about five minutes before and people were still coming in at three minutes before the invite time (including some older guests, and guests with canes and/or in wheelchairs) and I was actually a little irritated about it. Not a nice thing to do, wedding coordinator, not a nice thing to do!

  • VivaLuisa

    These posts from Elizabeth are BEYOND helpful!

    One question: how much time should one allow for a receiving line? Ideally I’d like for the two of us to hang out at the back of the ceremony space post-recessional, so we can hug and greet everyone, before cocktail hour. How long does this usually take in general?

    • thank you!

      oh, I love receiving lines! for some reason they’ve fallen out of fashion, but I’m doing my damnedest to bring them back, and I’ll cover the logistics/timing in detail next week.

      • I’m so glad! I want to DANCE at my wedding, but it’s also really important that I spend at least a little time saying hi to everyone, and it’s either “interrupt them at dinner” (which I will likely also do) or receiving line.

      • Megan (from Nova Scotia)

        YAY!!! that’s been on my mind, because I really wanted to have that at the wedding, if only to encourage people to go downstairs right after the ceremony so E and myself could have some time to ourselves before we went to the reception.

    • Celeste

      We had 60 guests and the receiving line took about 15 minutes. It was a great way to exit our non-traditional standing ceremony in a gallery, since we didn’t really have a recessional, and since we took pictures during cocktail hour, it was a way for everyone to congratulate us before we disappeared for a bit. We also have some really nice pictures from the receiving line.

    • Carrie

      We had an impromptu receiving line — we hadn’t planned for one, but as we were standing at the back of our ceremony space after the ceremony, a couple of guests came up and hugged us, and then a couple more were waiting to hug us, and then a line just formed. My maid of honor said “Carrie, I think you’re just going to have to hug everybody.” So we did.

      I’d say it took maybe 20 minutes? I wasn’t timing it, but it didn’t take forever. We had something like 75 guests.

  • AB_runner_gal

    I am from Canada and I was very surprised to learn that most weddings in the States shut down at 10pm. Up here last call is usually by 1am or midnight, depending on the vendor.
    I also thought it was curious that the wedding photos occur before the ceremony. Is that typical? What about the groom seeing his bride walk down the aisle for the first time? Although I suppose if I saw my groom before walking down the aisle I may be slightly less likely to become a crying mess, should make for some interesting photos as I am pretty sure I am an ‘ugly crier’. Most weddings I’ve been to have the ceremony earlier in the afternoon, usually a couple hours before cocktail hour. That allows the bridal party and the bride/groom time to take photos in between.
    Either way it is nice to have a relative breakdown of how a typical wedding will break down.

    • LIZ (SINCE 1982)

      Photos before the ceremony definitely seem to becoming more of A Thing – see the increasing frequency of “first look” pics around the blogosphere. My gent and I plan to do this, partly because of the larger timing/logistics of the day but also because I didn’t want our first sight of each other to be at the same time as all the guests – we’re looking forward to having a private moment to take it in together, all on our own. I expect that the “aisle moment” will still be special because it will be oh my god, here we are, we’re doing it! regardless of the fact that we’ve seen each other beforehand.

      Side note, hey hey fellow ugly crier! *solidarity fistbump*

      • I was in a wedding 3 weeks before mine where they saw each other for the first time walking down the aisle. And then at mine we did a first look.

        While I know it’s entirely dependent on your personal feelings, having seen it both ways I fully support the first look. Reasons:
        1. It was really stressful trying to get the bride into the venue without anyone seeing her. We had to send advance bridesmaids to various venue spots to run interference so the groom wouldn’t sneak a peek.
        2. I really loved having a few minutes to chat with my almost-husband all in our finery and let the weddingyness sink in. There’s a few great pictures of me showing him random details of my outfit and fixing his boutonniere.
        3. The walk down the aisle and seeing him at the end was still special. I guess I don’t know how it would have felt the other way, but it felt plenty awesome this way.

  • Cindy

    Any advice on timelines when the reception location is a drive away from the ceremony (about 45 minutes)? Our cocktail hour will probably start at 5:30pm, and I’ve been trying to work back from that time, but keep second guessing if we’re allowing too much time or not enough. We’re hoping to do a 1/2 hour ceremony, receiving line and family/bridal brigade portraits at the ceremony site, and then trek to the reception.

    • ElisabethJoanne

      Our reception venue was about 30 minutes from the church, on a normal weekend day, and I think that’s just how long it took to “move the wedding.” That is, unlike say, walking, where moving a crowd invariably takes longer than moving just 2 people, driving (and parking) dozens of cars didn’t take significantly longer than the trip with 1.

      It helped that people left the church in stages: About 1/3 immediately after the ceremony, 1/3 about 10 minutes later, and the last third, which had stayed for photos, over about the next 30 minutes. [We had about 80 guests, and we did photos at the church during “cocktail hour.”]

      As much as I studied timelines before my wedding, and even though I made up timelines with precise times, I told myself and everyone involved that the timeline was more an order of events than a schedule. The things that usually go long – photos, getting dinner ready, dancing – all went short for us. We were at least 20 minutes ahead all evening.

  • Emily

    I know everyone finds what works for them, and this variation of opinions is something I love about APW, but if I had followed this schedule for my 5pm ceremony, I would have ended up with a splitting headache. Four hours of getting ready??? I went to a yoga class that morning, had brunch with my parents at my favorite coffee shop; then we walked around looking at shops and art galleries. My husband played ultimate frisbee with all of his friends. When I got to our venue, it took about twenty minutes to do my hair, makeup and put my dress on. Photos at 4pm. On time ceremony at 5pm.

    I wanted to enjoy my day and feel relaxed and laid back, and I did and was. Just another point of view…

    • LIZ (SINCE 1982)

      I totally agree and expect my day to be similar in spirit to yours, and I bet Elizabeth has plenty of experience of that kind of timeline as well! I took the posted example more as a “this is about as complicated/time-intensive as most of you will probably get,” with the “feel free to ignore or shuffle parts around” being implied. I definitely appreciated seeing all the individual pieces and their expected durations, if only so I could mentally go “yep, check,” or “hm, we’ll probably do that for half as long,” or “not doing that, woohoo add thirty minutes to the dance party portion of the evening!”

    • Elissa

      I think that 4 hour block is designed to include all the bridesmaids, your mum and your auntie getting their hair and makeup done. Meanwhile you could be relaxing at the coffee shop around the corner, or having a lie down or playing Minecraft (which is what I’d do :p), until it’s your turn at the end.

      • exactly! if you have a wedding party/family getting pro hair and makeup done as well, generally the stylists are there for at least four (and sometimes up to six) hours total. No one besides them has to be there the entire time ;)

        (also, I am certainly not saying you need to get pro-hair and makeup done for your wedding – to be totally honest I personally wouldn’t, but that’s because I wear makeup and style my hair every day and am super particular about the way I do it. BUT – *most* people get pro-hair and makeup done for their weddings, and I totally support people doing it if they want to!)

        • Emily

          Here’s the deeper issue: Why, on our wedding days, do so many women work so hard to look like someone who isn’t really them? Dare I say like a princess? Can we rethink this a little bit? And please don’t say we just want to be our most beautiful selves.

          My sister had a beautiful wedding. She wore a stunning cupcake dress, and she hired someone to do her makeup and her hair. She looked beautiful, but she didn’t look like herself at all. Even my dad commented on it, and my sister is truly my dad’s baby.

          When I shopped at a major retail wedding dress shop with a friend for her wedding, I was shocked when they brought out all these layers – basically corsets – that she was “supposed” to wear under her dress. Why? Women fought long and hard in the early 1900s to shed these garments.

          Why is it, on a day when who you are matters so deeply, do we try and become someone else?

          • Emily, I don’t disagree with you at all, but I think this is a *much* bigger issue than how it relates to day of timelines. And I would totally encourage you to write a post about it!

          • Samantha

            I could see it from the other side though. Rather than what we are “supposed” to do we of course should have the choice about doing whatever makes us FEEL the best for that day. That rather than trying to look like someone else we may be just trying to be a fancier, jazzed up version of ourselves, because the day IS special! And why not treat ourselves to something a bit out of the norm, like getting our hair done professionally if that makes someone feel great and happy and special for this important day. Jazz it up girls but be feel like YOU!

          • Samantha

            I could see it from the other side though. Rather than what we are “supposed” to do we of course should have the choice about doing whatever makes us FEEL the best for that day. That rather than trying to look like someone else we may be just trying to be a fancier, jazzed up version of ourselves, because the day IS special! And why not treat ourselves to something a bit out of the norm, like getting our hair done professionally if that makes someone feel great and happy and special for this important day. Jazz it up girls but feel like YOU!

          • I hear you, but at the same time – I probably WOULD like to look gorgeous every day, but I’m far too lazy/inept at beauty to do so. Like, am I going to spend two hours on my appearance every day? HELLS NO. (Am I even going to spend half an hour, including shower? Doubtful.) But it’s not that I don’t want to do those things; only that I choose sleep over doing them.

            But for a giant party that my fiance and I are hosting? Yeah, I want to look like my prettiest self.

    • Maddie

      Something I never accounted for at my own wedding was downtime between these steps. Luckily other people thought of it for me, so at the suggestion of my mom, I budgeted in an additional two hours after getting my hair and makeup done just so that I wouldn’t feel like I was rushing from one appointment to putting my dress on to the ceremony.

      Just an additional thought on the matter!

  • Beth

    So helpful! We’re just starting to go over timeline stuff and I’ve been feeling pretty lost on how to order everything. Our start time is 4pm, so this is great.

    Quick question. We have a guest whose birthday is on our wedding day as well as several friends and family members whose birthdays fall within that week, so we are thinking about doing individual cakes at each of the tables so we can also celebrate their birthdays (and I thought it would be fun for people to be able to cut/serve their own cake. Is that just me?). So my question is….I thought this would be easiest at the end of dinner while everyone is still at their tables, but if we do that, will people then just leave immediately following dinner? That would be kind of sad. :\

    • Cbaker

      I baked cakes for a wedding that had cakes at each table (23 total!). No one left immediately after dinner, they stayed and partied and ate cake all night. I think most guests wait until later in the night to leave, after the bride and groom exit or a little bit before. I don’t think serving cake sends the “go home” message to anyone, just older people might head out when they get tired.

      • correct! It’s just a signal that people “can” go home if they want – the majority of your guests won’t leave until much later!

        and, I’ve done two weddings with cakes-as-centerpieces and it was totally a hit – it also got people mingling between tables so that hey could try different flavors!

    • I think it’s more that people who want to leave early use cake cutting as their social grace exit. So if I’m sick, or I don’t know you very well, or you’re playing dub-step at your wedding, I’m going to leave after cake happens.

      If you’re my buddy and/or you’re playing R Kelly? Then you’re not going to be able to push me out of the door, cake or no.

      (Also I love your idea!)

  • Elissa

    Yay, nice to see some of the stuff I thought up for myself is also in the professional advice (eg tell people what’s going to happen and they’ll roll with it easier).

    Our preliminary schedule is looking fairly similar except that cocktail hour will be closer to two hours so that we can nip down to the beach for photos – my partner is inexplicably set against the pre-wedding pics :( We’re including lawn games like bocce, quoits, giant jenga to keep people occupied (plus drinks and snacks, of course). We figure that 15 min receiving congratulations, an hour or so off getting photos while ppl play and eat, 45ish min zomg bride and groom are back, party reinvigorated, will keep it from being too long. All our people will know a bunch of other people, which helps.

    We’re applying a similar principle to our non-dancing reception. Break it up with dinner, (short) speeches with intro to entertainment options to follow, then photo booth, games, puzzles and socialising, then cake, then more time for games, and always end one part with telling people a) what happens now, and b) what will happen after that and when.

  • Mer

    I am trying to figure out the timelines for two very different and not so un-common (I think) events.

    The first is a four day (travel on days 1 and 4) destination wedding with 19 people where we will all be staying at the same beach house. Both the photographer and the officiant are family members who will be staying the whole time at the beach and there will be no outside catering so we don’t have vendor restraints on timing for anything. Yes this is going to be awesome fun with the people I love the most. However, T. is of the mind set we should take the weekend as it comes, get married whenever, celebrate all weekend. While I like the idea, my sanity needs a little more structure. Advice on a middle ground?

    The second occasion is a mid-day open house reception about three weeks later for all of our many family and friends. It will be held at either our house or in a local park. Is there a standard protocol for wedding reception open house? Also, how do you kindly and politely hint that it is time for guests to be leaving your home because you now want your house back?

    • good questions! I personally would go into the beach weekend with at least a loose timeline – ie. schedule mealtimes (and at least a loose menu), big activities/chunks of time for activities (even if that’s 1-5pm – free time for beach walks/board games/reading on the deck), and including yep, when the ceremony is going to be. You can play the details by ear and be flexible on the time (ie, if you say the ceremony will be at 5pm on Saturday, don’t worry if it ends up being at 5:37pm.)

      I’ll cover open house weddings/receptions next week – I’ve done several (they’re very popular in the Mormon community.)

      • Mer

        Thank you!

  • Cbaker

    Will you’ve posting about ceremony timelines? I have a great all-day timeline, but have not yet figured out the ceremony details. Our officiant is a friend, (also a youth minister). I’m sure he has some ideas but I need all the structure I can get!

  • One more sara

    I want to make out with this post.

  • Jenn

    I hope that guests staying 5-6 hours isn’t a hard and fast rule, in the UK weddings on average start much earlier than in the States, ceremony beginning at noon, 1 or 2pm. And the weddings I have been to here carry on until midnight, so maybe it is just a cultural thing!

    • in my personal experience, overall most Brits party harder & longer than most Americans (in the very best possible way – some of the most fun weddings I’ve been to in America have been the ones where one half of the couple is British and so there’s a large UK contingent in attendance.)

    • Elsa

      It IS a cultural thing: in France weddings can easily last 12 hours (ceremony at 3pm, end of the party at 3 am…).
      But I have to agree that it is super long, and I usually feel like going home MUCH earlier than that. For some reason though, most people consider that the later their party ended, the better it was… So it is seen as unkind to leave a wedding before 1 pm in France without a good excuse (like being very old/very sick).
      Major downside to this timeline: you can kiss any kind of quiet time with your new husband and your wedding night goodbye.
      Also, for the guests, the last image you get of the wedding is one of drunk, tired guests… and of a not-so-fresh-anymore bride with a ruined dress, which always makes me kind of sad…

      My fiance and I did not want to experience that during our own wedding, so we chose to have a morning ceremony followed by a luncheon that ended around 5 pm.
      Everyone thought it was very peculiar (daytime weddings are not the norm in France), but honestly my husband and I were so exhausted by 5 pm and so impatient to share some quiet time alone on this important day that I’m glad I chose this option and not the traditionnal way.

      Just wanted to share my experience to tell everyone planning a wedding not to worry too much if their timeline or anything are not 100% traditionnal… it is very contingent to the time/country you live in after all.
      So if you want to host a party until 5 in the morning and everyone gives you crap about it, you can just reply “that’s how the french do it” :)

  • Cate

    Great information! A question on gaps– our ceremony and reception are at the same location, but because we’ve chosen to not see each other before, are we able to put an hour break in? We’d like an hour between the 4:30 ceremony and the 6:00 cocktail hour from 5-6 for pictures and so we don’t miss the whole cocktail hour? Will guests get mad or bored? Or welcome the time to catch up with friends/freshen up while we take pictures? thank you!,

    • Yes! This is the answer I need as well!

      We’re getting married in the woods (party!), but the ceremony and reception site are, like, 5 minutes’ walk away from one another. I’d like at least an hour and a half for photos (and to capture that lovely sunset light) but I still want to, you know, see our guests. Is a two hour cocktail hour too long?

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  • Sarah G

    We rented out a campground for the whole weekend and plan to have the ceremony on Saturday. Most of the guests will be camping with us, but not everyone. Some will be driving back to Portland, about an hour away. I am in desperate need of some help with my timeline!

  • Samantha

    I would love to hear some of your suggestions for creating a bit of a timeline for a cocktail style reception with very few – first dance and parents’ dances – “wedding” events. Thanks!

    • great question, and cocktail style receptions are some of my favorite (I do them fairly frequently) – I’ll definitely cover it!

      • Samantha


  • Maggs McBroom

    Thank you so much for this post!! We were going through the same dilemma of scheduling for our upcoming wedding. Our ceremony begins at 4 and we are having our ceremony and reception in the same place. We couldn’t match it with other timelines as they always seemed to not match up etc. Thank you so much once again.

  • Moe




    Thank You!!!

  • MM

    Any advice for scheduling around 8 hours of photography when the getting ready and party shots are equally as important? We’re looking at a 4:30pm ceremony time…will it be enough time if we have the photographers arrive at 1pm? Will there be time before the ceremony for photos? I don’t expect hair and makeup to take more than 2 hours, but who knows… Opinions from those who have worked with similar timelines would be helpful.

  • This is so amazing! APW, WHY ARE YOU MY BRAIN TWIN?

    Any advice on how to deal with hard end times? We’re having our wedding in the national forest, which is awesome, but the gates close to all non-overnight campers at 10 pm sharp, which is less fun. We don’t need to worry about breaking things down (we’ve rented the facility for the weekend, so we’ll just go back and do it the next day), but everyone has to get out of the gate by 10 pm.

    How long does it generally take to round people up and kick them the hell out (nicely)? We’re looking into shuttle buses to the nearby hotels so that no one is drunk driving/to reduce the amount of cars traveling into the forest, so the guests will be boarding a bus instead of climbing in their own cars.

    • I’d allow for about 30 minutes to round everyone up (so, shut off the music & shut down the bar 30 minutes before the bus needs to leave.)

  • I am also thanking my lucky stars that the friend who has agreed to “stage manage” the wedding is an actual, honest-to-god, opera stage manager. Someone who makes her career by regularly seeing to the smooth running of an opera is going to have no problem at all with one little wedding.

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  • Sara

    This is really helpful! Thank you!

    Could anyone tell me when the garter/bouquet toss traditionally happens? I’d like to do them but I’m a bit lost about where to put it in the timeline. During dancing? Before dancing? At the end of the night?

  • Mexican themed wedding here —-What about mariachis? I can’t figure out when to have them play? They’re playing for one hour.

    • I love Mariachi bands at weddings. To answer your question:
      Mexican themed wedding – cocktail hour!
      Actual Mexican wedding – sometime around midnight or 1am!

  • madison

    What is the protocol if you do not want to take pictures until after the ceremony? How long is appropriate to hold cocktail hour while you and your bridal party take pictures?

  • Catriona

    I was just wondering what a family style dinner is…? :)

    • Risa

      Family style dinner is when food is served on large platters for each table and everyone at the table puts whatever portion they want onto their individual plates or bowls.

  • Brooke

    I have a 5:30 Wedding on a Sunday in May of next year.

    Ceremony and Reception same place.

    Groomsmen will be at Hotel, Bridesmaids will be at my house

    I want to do a first look and only 1 limo is this possible. I was thinking about picking up the groom first and having them wait in limo blind folded before we go to our first location…is this doable? The reception goes until 11:30pm. I need to contact the venue to see what time we need to be out by.

    Let me know your thoughts.

  • Sarah

    Love your timeline ideas and will use many of your suggestions. I am planning my own wedding (2nd marriage for both of us) and have a timeline dilemma. Our event will basically be a party with a ceremony. The ceremony and party are all in the same place. Food will be heavy passed appetizers and martini meals. There will be a live band.

    We will greet guests as they arrive at 6:30 pm. The bar will be open and nuts will be on the tables. At 7:25 our nephew will ask for guests to turn their attention to the bride & groom, at which time we will have the ceremony. Our 5 grown kids will stand with us.

    How do you suggest we transition from the ceremony into the rest of the evening?

  • Kayla

    Hello your timeline is very helpful but I was wondering if you could help me fill in the blanks with some suggestions on how you think might be helpful for a timeline.

    I have my ceremony starting at 3-pm (on the invitation so probably it will start at 3:15) I was thinking of getting to the church to get ready at 11-am and the hair and makeup people are meeting us there. But I don’t know if we should be there earlier or not, I have 4 bridesmaid, my mother and my fiances mother, and my self and we going to take the group pictures before the wedding.

    We put the reception start time for 5:30pm, and dinner is scheduled from 6:30-8pm.

    We have our reception hall Until 1-am but it is technically 12-am because we are supposed to start shutting down then to clean. I’m just very lost on how to set up a time line for the music, dances, toasts, cake, etc, etc if you could please help I would very much appreciate it!!!!

  • Christy

    Thank you so much. The after party part helped me with a dilemma I was having as my wedding is on a Friday evening late between 6 and 7 pm and my reception is the next day. I’ve been getting such push back about it, that you helped me get an idea to say it’s reunion time after our ceremony, and that we’d be dropping by each bar/restaurant (on our program list) to say hi, and that we will also look forward to seeing them at the ceremony. Thank you, thank you, Thank You!!!!

  • Anne C

    This post is great. My wedding is going to be very large, but mostly run care of by friends and family members with businesses (ie caterer, reception venue, photographer). I am struggling with my timeline, however. I have a 1 pm ceremony time and am thinking 4-5 for cocktail hour and 6-11 for the reception. The band is amazing but only plays for 5 hours so I don’t want them to play during dinner. We are doing plated or family style salads and bread while our 300 guests go through a buffet line. Reception site is an 1877 completely renovated barn owned by a family friend but not open to the public, so it is a private and more casual affair. Do I need to provide guests with specific things to do between the wedding and cocktail hour or can I just provide suggestions? (Most of our guests are from the area, or will be with family in town, but for the out of town guests what should I do?) Also, the caterer is going to do food and basic beverages, but nothing alcoholic. Any suggestions for a way to do a bar without hiring a bar tender? (In a small town like mine there are only 2 catering options, so finding a bar tender isn’t easy)

  • Some great ideas in here, and I love the format you use. AND so true on the invite time and start time! If you want to start with all your guests plan to start late.

  • Allison

    Question: My fiance and I are planning on having a reception with dinner, cake, dancing and a bonfire, and then, later in the evening, breaking out a projector and pillows and blankets, and watching the wedding episodes of some of our favorite shows (How I Met Your Mother, Sherlock, The Office) with our guests. (with popcorn, candy, and soda to snack on, of course!) How should we adjust the times and when should we do the exit? Should we do the exit after the TV shows, knowing many guests will have already gone home, or should we do it before, even though we aren’t technically leaving then? And is it ok to have a bit longer reception since there will be time at the end to relax and have fun, and people can leave after the cake, or do we still need to keep everything within the 6 hour timeline? Should the TV night be our after party in a different location?

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  • Mel Dawn

    Thank you for the timeline article. Make sure your celebrity limousine toronto is onboard with your exact timing. It can make or break your day!

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