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7 of the priciest weddings—for guests

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Getting married, as most people have heard, is not a low-cost endeavor. Neither, as it turns out, is being a wedding guest.

The average guest will spend $592 to attend a wedding this year, according to the American Express Spending & Savings Tracker. That's up 10 percent from 2013 and 75 percent from 2012. (And yes, that is just a ceremony-watching, fish-or-chicken-choosing guest. Members of the bridal party spend slightly more, at an average $618.)

"This links back really clearly to what we're seeing in spending overall," said David Rabkin, senior vice president of consumer lending for AmEx. "People are starting to feel more comfortable." In the less-flush years of the recession and its aftermath, he said, guests were more likely to decline attending or be more frugal on their costs to attend.

Bumped-up guest costs are also a reflection of consumers throwing more lavish weddings. Last year, the average wedding budget hit a staggering $29,858, up 5 percent from 2012, according to wedding site TheKnot.com.

Why should couples care how much guests will spend? More "no" RSVPs, for one, potentially including some important relatives and friends who can't make the numbers work.

Weddings guests deem too pricey to attend also create a nightmare for couples in the form of last-minute cancellations, said Leslie Weekes, a wedding and event consultant based in Washington, D.C. Within a few weeks of the wedding, one of her brides lost three tables' worth of guests who would have been traveling in from out of town.

"People tell the couple they'll be there," said Weekes. "But when it's time to shell out the money, then they cancel." If that happens after final numbers are due to a vendor or caterer, the couple may be out the money for those no-show guests.

These seven wedding attributes, experts said, can substantially add to the cost of being a guest. Tally your possible costs before sending in that reply card.


—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant
Posted 10 May 2014

Destination weddings

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In 2013, 24 percent of nuptials were a destination wedding.

"There's a misconception that that means islands and international travel," said Anja Winikka, site director for TheKnot.com. By the site's estimates, 70 percent of destination weddings are couples getting married in the continental United States—they're just picking a location other than the one in which the bulk of their guests live. That might be one of their hometowns, the city they just moved to, or some other place with sentimental meaning. Still, many guests will have to pay for airfare, hotel and other travel expenses. Hotel costs may be higher in a big city; smaller towns may require a car rental to navigate from the hotel to the wedding sites.

Far-flung weddings can be even pricier. "If someone is getting married in Cancun, the flight and the hotel is a lot more than it would be to go to Indianapolis," said Alan Fields, co-author of "Bridal Bargains." Depending on the destination, guests may need to obtain a visa, renew their passport or arrange vaccinations. Farther distances also tend to require more days off, to account for travel time.

Advance planning may be key for destination wedding guests to save, particularly on airfare, said Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com. Start looking for deals as soon as you get the save-the-date. Plus, according to TheKnot.com, 39 percent of couples pay for a portion of guests' travel or hotel costs.

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Black-tie dress code

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If the wedding dress code is formal evening wear, expect your costs as a guest to jump at least 10 percent, said Kellee Khalil, founder of wedding site Lover.ly. Unless, that is, you happen to already have a tuxedo or a floor-length gown in your closet. The average tuxedo rental is $203, she said, while a formal gown can cost $100 to $300. Formal weddings may also prompt guests to splurge on a blowout or special hairstyle, to the tune of $66.

Fortunately for guests on a budget, black-tie weddings are still somewhat rare, accounting for 20 percent of celebrations, according to TheKnot.com. Their popularity also tends to be regional—depending on where you live, you might be able to dodge that bullet. In 2013, 40 percent of weddings in Manhattan were black tie, the highest percentage nationwide.

Rental sites such as Rent the Runway can more than halve formal dress costs, said Khalil. There, prices for black-tie wedding attire start at $70.

Holidays and local events

Couples participate in the run-through wedding ceremony during the Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Marathon and Half Marathon benefitting the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America on November 17, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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"Any wedding right near a major holiday can be fraught with all kinds of pitfalls," said Fields. Couples often assume the wedding will be easier for guests, since they already have say, Memorial Day off from work. But holiday weekends often mean higher airfares and hotel rates for guests traveling in, he said. Guests that don't automatically have the day off may lose out on higher-rate holiday pay, or be forced to use a vacation day or two to attend.

Guests may also pay more, particularly for hotel rooms, if the wedding coincides with a big local event, such as a convention, festival, marathon or sporting event. For the Boston Marathon this year, hotel consulting group TravelClick reported a 14.3 percent increase in hotel rates in the Greater Boston area. "If you get married on a weekend where there's a home football game, where I am in Denver, the hotels are much more expensive," Fields said.

To avoid elevated hotel rates, book early into the hotel room blocks arranged by the couple, Banas said. It's also smart to start holiday airfare searches a few months in advance of the date, before leisure travelers get around to making their getaway plans.

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No kids allowed

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Plenty of couples want to keep their nuptials for adults only, particularly if they're hosting a black-tie or formal celebration, said Weekes. Nixing kid invites may require guests to hire a babysitter, particularly for a family member's wedding where the usual sitters—your parents or cousins, maybe—are also guests.

The average hourly rate for a quality sitter is $12.45, with a lot of variation by region, according to Care.com. For someone driving 30 minutes each way for an hour-long ceremony and five-hour reception, that's an extra $87.15. Expect to pay a higher rate if you have multiple kids, or expect a very late-night return.

Some couples do arrange for a babysitter to watch guests' kids, although that perk is becoming less common, Weekes said. It's worth asking if that's the case.

Budget cuts

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Trimming your wedding budget is smart, but some couples are making cuts that shift the expense to their guests. One to note: The dreaded cash bar. It's not unusual to see a limited menu (say, beer and wine only) or a limited time frame (the first three hours free), with guests paying for drinks beyond those parameters, said Khalil. Prices vary by selection, with house wines and beers starting at $5 per glass and liquor and cocktails at $7 and up. (Don't forget tips for the bartender.)

Weekes said she's seen a shift from a few years ago, when couples often planned for shuttle buses to take guests to and from the wedding ceremony and reception sites. "We're seeing a lot less provided transportation," she said. "That puts it on the guests to get around." That adds to gas costs for drivers, and forces out-of-town guests and those without cars to hail a taxi or rent a car if they can't arrange to ride with someone else.

Check the couple's wedding web site for such details, and don't be shy about reaching out to them for help connecting with other guests to carpool.

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Extravagant celebrations

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There's a common wedding myth that a guest should give a gift equivalent to the per-person cost the newlyweds pay. With wedding costs rising, that could prompt unwitting guests to bust their budget to give a bigger gift than is strictly necessary. "It's an old-school guideline," Winikka said. "Really, what the new rule around that is, you give what you think is appropriate and you give in accordance to your closeness with the couple." Your budget should also play a factor.

Close family members and friends plan to spend an average $200 on gifts, up 20 percent from 2012, according to AmEx. Other guests give a gift worth $109, 16 percent more than in 2012. Plenty of guests chip in for a group gift, which can be a smart idea if you have budget constraints, Winikka said.

Bridal party participation

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Experts say the AmEx estimate of $618 to participate in a wedding might be on the low side. Khalil puts the figure at closer to $700 to $900, given the costs to help throw and give gifts for an engagement party, bachelor or bachelorette party and bridal shower.

It's also becoming more common for couples to schedule extra events in the days before and after the wedding, particularly for a destination wedding or one in a unique location, said Stephanie Scholl, an event planner based in Washington, D.C. There might be a Thursday wine tasting or spa day, a Friday night rehearsal and a Sunday brunch. "It's very fun, but it definitely contributes to the increased price of the wedding and the cost of attending the wedding," she said. That kind of scheduling can require the bridal party to book more hotel nights, take more days off work, and spend more on those extra activities if the costs aren't fully covered by the bride and groom.

Backing out isn't easy once you've committed, so be sure to consider the obligations for your time and money before saying "yes," said Winikka. "You are taking on a financial commitment," she said. Most couples are sensitive to their guests' and attendants' budgets, so bring up any concerns.

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