'Definitely get married on a cruise ship': The weddings take less planning than on land

Morgan Hines
  • Carnival Cruise Line performed 2,200 weddings and vow renewals in 2019.
  • There's less planning involved on the part of the marrying couple for a cruise ship wedding.
  • The cost of a wedding and cruise combination can vary, just like a wedding on land.

Like so many others, Tom Hayes and Jimmy Isaacs had to push back their wedding because of COVID-19. But unlike most couples, the London-based pair's wedding didn't take place at a typical venue. Instead, they were wed on a cruise ship.

Hayes told USA TODAY that he's been on around 20 cruises – and that when he and Isaacs started seeing each other, he turned his other half into a cruise addict, too.

"Naturally, when Jimmy proposed to me in June 2019 we both immediately knew we wanted to get married at sea," Hayes said. "We had planned to marry aboard Norwegian Epic, sailing out of Barcelona in April 2021."

The couple married April 18 on the same ship with 27 of their loved ones. 

While it's not the most common destination for a wedding, marriages are performed on cruise ships fairly often.

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Royal Caribbean International, for example, hosts around 1,000 weddings each year, Celia De La Llama, a spokesperson for the line, told USA TODAY. 

And Michele Andjel, spokesperson for P&O Cruises and Cunard, Carnival Corporation's UK brands, told USA TODAY that on annual average, P&O Cruises hosts more than 500 weddings and Cunard more than 100.

Holland America Line carried out 27 weddings in 2019, the last "typical year" before the pandemic, spokesperson Erik Elvejord said. This year, Holland America already has 20 weddings "on the books."

In the same year, Carnival Cruise Line did 2,200 weddings and vow renewals, Matt Lupoli, Carnival spokesperson, said.

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Why get married on a cruise ship?

Macy Reeves married her husband on Carnival Cruise Line's Carnival Sunrise ship on Feb. 8, 2020. They chose to get married at sea because of the size of her family, she said. 

"I couldn't afford to invite everyone to the wedding (it would've been more than 300 people) so a cruise wedding fixed that because I could invite as many sailing guests as I wanted and I was limited to 30 nonsailing guests," Reeves explained.

That means that anyone who booked a sailing on the ship could come to the wedding and an additional 30 could come onboard for the wedding and leave afterward.

"It worked out perfect," she said. "We had a five-day honeymoon cruise with our friends and family."

Macy Reeves and her husband, Michael, married on board Carnival Cruise Line's Carnival Sunrise ship on Feb. 8, 2020. At the time of the ceremony, the ship was docked in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Just over a decade ago, Sharine and Dana Grayson-Thomas, frequent cruisers, got married on the Norwegian Jewel before it departed from New York City.

They made the decision to wed on a ship after already booking a venue, DJ, flowers, cake and more for a land-based wedding in Connecticut, Sharine told USA TODAY in July while the couple was celebrating their 10th anniversary on Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas.

While planning, the Grayson-Thomases found themselves asking "will the guests like this?" And realized that they'd planned a celebration that wasn't for them at all.

"We were like, 'this is not us,'" Sharine said. "We were trying to plan for everyone else to enjoy."

So they changed course, cut their guest list from 200 to 60, and booked their wedding with Norwegian Cruise Line, which, at the time, Dana said was the only cruise line to offer same-sex wedding ceremonies.

What's it like to get married on a cruise ship?

Reeves boarded the ship at 10 a.m. on her wedding day and the event began around noon.

Before the ceremony, guests could spend the time as they pleased on the ship – drinking, eating, playing mini-golf – while Reeves readied herself. Then, they had a 12-minute ceremony before an onboard reception with dancing, drinks, dining and toasts before nonsailing guests disembarked.

While the ceremony and reception were shorter than land-side commemorations, the full celebration was longer.

"Other cruise guests saw us in our wedding attire and congratulated us," she said. "People bought us drinks when (we were) out on the boat. We participated in a wedding show onboard the boat. It was just a big party for five days instead of a one-day celebration with family and friends how most weddings are."

Sharine and Dana Grayson-Thomas boarded with their 60 guests before the rest of the passengers at 10:30 a.m.

They had a "circle of love" ceremony in one of the lounges with special purple, pink and fuchsia touches featuring silk flowers – you can't bring live flowers onto a cruise ship, they explained.

After the wedding ended, the newlyweds started their vacation with 14 of their loved ones, including their children.

Sharine and Dana Grayson-Thomas married on Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Jewel on July 30, 2011.

How it works for wedding guests

Similar to a destination wedding, a cruise wedding offers guests the opportunity to become passengers and to stay for a vacation. And that is taken into account during the planning process.

"It was important to us that we chose a sailing that offered both a short (three-night) and long (seven-night) option so that our guests could stay for as short or as long as they wished – and this itinerary really fit the spec," Hayes explained.

But, depending on the situation, invited guests don't always have to remain on board after the wedding in order to attend.

Reeves had 30 "nonsailing" guests come onboard for the ceremony while the ship was docked in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They stayed for the ceremony and a reception before disembarking.

Like Reeves, the Grayson-Thomases had some guests that disembarked after the wedding. After checking out the ship while waiting for the ceremony to begin, they said some of their guests had regrets about not sticking around for a vacation.

How much does it cost?

Like a wedding shoreside, the cost of the experience can vary.

For Hayes and Isaacs, the wedding aspect itself cost the London-based couple around £1000, or $1300. The actual cruise cost more. 

"We're on for seven nights and are in a Spa Suite – spoiling ourselves – so it's £2,600 ($3,410) for the two of us," Hayes said. "But some of our guests are doing three nights and in an inside cabin at £400 ($520) per person."

Reeves, who got married on a Carnival Cruise Line ship, said they spent around $4,000 on the ceremony and reception onboard and a "grand total" of $10,000 on the entire experience including her dress, the rehearsal dinner, the cruise, photographer, ceremony – the whole nine yards.

As of April 2022, the starting price to have a wedding on a Carnival ship is $1,499 with up to 10 guests including the couple, a two-tier cake and a few other amenities. Cost increases from there. However, the cruise line is not currently booking new reservations for weddings or vow renewals, according to its website.

The Grayson-Thomases' 2011 wedding cost around $17,000, Sharine estimated – that covered the cost of the cruise for the couple, their children and the wedding itself. Dana commented that they saved a great deal of money by getting married at sea.

For reference, a wedding in the U.S. cost around $34,000 total on average in 2021, according to The Knot. The ceremony and reception portion cost $28,000 on average.

How does planning work?

Getting married on a cruise ship entails minimal work on the part of the couple, according to Hayes.

"There's less to do," he said. "No negotiating with multiple suppliers – the florist, the venue, the band, the caterers, the drivers, the hotel, the bar staff, etc."

Instead, they were able to simply contact the Norwegian Cruise Line's special events team to communicate their desires. Norwegian also has a calendar available on its website for interested couples to investigate open dates for weddings and their assorted packages available for purchase.

Sharine Grayson-Thomas said the same. 

"If you like to have total control of everything and be like a 'bridezilla,' it’s not for you, they're really planning everything," she explained. "You're choosing a few things and you're giving them money for it."

Dana Grayson-Thomas said there are a few ways to incorporate your own flare, especially if the ceremony is held before the ship departs such as theme colors.

Reeves also hired a private photographer to work her wedding – even though she was bending the rules a bit.

"You're not supposed to … but I did it anyway," she said. "(The cruise line) wants you to use their photographers but if you tell them your 'aunt' or 'uncle' is a photographer and is taking your photos for free then they'll allow it."

And while no live flowers are allowed on board because of the possibility of insects traveling from one country to another on the ship, Reeves worked with a florist to select artificial floral arrangements to bring on board, she said.

Even though she added her own touches, it still was simpler than it would have been to plan a wedding shoreside, she said.

"Since the whole wedding was 2.5 hours total, it made the planning part very easy because it was just ceremony and reception," she explained. "I also had to have everything planned out and submitted to my Carnival cruise wedding planner at least 60 days before the wedding."

There was a downside though, to the simplicity: It felt rushed. Reeves and her husband, Michael, had to miss a few dances to go take photos with the photographer since there wasn't designated time to do that – when it may have taken place during a cocktail hour at a traditional venue.

But, Reeves said, they don't have any regrets.

"It was a fantastic experience," she said. "I would recommend anyone who is uncertain about what kind of wedding they're wanting but they know they want casual, fun, and unique to definitely get married on a cruise ship."

And Hayes agreed. "We had a wonderful day and the ship’s staff couldn’t have done more to make it go smoothly."