You’ve got the ring, you’ve told the family, and now everyone is looking forward to the big day. So how do you get started?

Probably the most important decision in your planning process (after agreeing to get married in the first place) is to select your venue. You can’t start talking food, entertainment or theme until you know where your wedding and/or reception is going to be held. Even selecting your wedding dress should wait until you know what your “setting” will be.

But there are still a few decisions to make even before you start checking out venues – budget and number of guests.

The first will somewhat dictate the second, but we all know there are certain people that just have to be at your wedding. Talk to your intended and find out what his or her “must attend” number is, add yours and you’ve got a starting point.

Now, discover what your budget is. Are you paying for everything yourself? Has Mom and/or Dad put something away for years just for this special event? Do not go into debt or expect anyone to  max out credit cards just so you can have the wedding of your dreams. Dream weddings can be had on most any budget, so determine yours first and then start dreaming.

Next, figure out how much of that budget is for the actual wedding ceremony and reception; eliminate things like dresses, honeymoon, bridesmaid gifts, etc. and discover how much you’ve actually got towards the BIG EVENT itself.

Now you can start the fun part, checking out venues and envisioning your wedding there.

You can invite more guests to a destination wedding then you can actually expect to attend.  A destination wedding is a wedding and reception held more than three hours from your home, necessitating that guests travel some distance back and forth or book overnight reservations (or sometimes weekend accommodations) in order to attend. For this reason most destination weddings are more intimate in size, varying from 25 to 175 guests, than weddings held a short drive from home.  If you want, and expect 200 to 300 guests or even more, you will of course be looking at different venues then if you only want or expect half that many.

Large hotels and resorts are best for large weddings. Catering is usually done on-site and there is usually an event sales person who arranges for floral and other elements.  They usually offer lots of flex space, including ballrooms that can be connected or divided depending upon the size of your wedding.  Some of these spaces require quite a bit of additional décor in order to create the festive theme or look you are looking for, and your options may be limited as to what you are allowed to do with the space. Your time frame may be limited as well. With any venue, it is important to determine how long you will have use of the space, not just how long the actual event is planned to take from beginning to end.  If you need to decorate a space to make it “yours” make sure you’ll have ample time to do so.

Private and unique venues are increasing in popularity as more and more couples want their weddings to uniquely reflect who they are. More and more couples are also less comfortable about being on display and want their commitment and celebration to be witnessed by a more intimate guest list of family and close personal friends.

Private venues range from castles to barns, from fields to mountaintops.  Once you’ve decided upon your budget and size of guest list, you’ll be able to eliminate a lot of choices.  Tents can expand protected spaces, and many private venues may host most of their festivities in gardens and on lawns. Tents can create a magical and festive atmosphere, but not everyone likes them.  Be sure to check to see the maximum number of guests that can be accommodated with and without additional tenting.

Whatever venues you choose to visit, do your homework. Some will require travel outside of your area, so you don’t want to waste time and money until you are certain they offer what you are looking for and are something you can afford. Most venues will be glad to discuss pricing with you before you schedule your visit.  You’ll waste their time and money too if you visit a venue that can’t fit your needs or budget. But don’t assume you can’t afford a venue until you’ve gotten all the facts.

Here are some important questions to ask when considering a location for your wedding.

What is the total pricing on everything the venue will be providing?  I call this the tax, tag and title price. You’ll want to know in advance if tables, chairs and other rentals are included, and if not, what those charges will be. Include delivery fees, gratuities, taxes, etc. Are there any additional fees? Cleaning fees, valet service and staffing are all usual add-ons to basic venue only pricing, so make sure you have the total cost of the location so you can compare apples to apples with others.

Are you restricted to their in-house catering or only their recommended vendors? This will limit your ability to “shop around” for the best food, floral and other services from vendors of your choice. If they offer “suggested” pricing, make sure again the pricing is inclusive or taxes, gratuities, etc. And what can you provide your guests yourself? Can you bring in your own alcohol? This can be a huge savings over having it provided by the venue or caterer. If you do, is there a corkage fee, other charges or requirements?

What are their policies and restrictions? If you envision candlelight flickering on tabletops make sure you can deal with LED candles if that’s all that the venue allows. Want your dog to be the ringbearer?  Better make sure that four legged family members are welcome. And again, how long do you have the space? Is there place to get ready or must you arrive in your gown? Is there an hourly charge if your reception lasts longer or starts later than expected. Weddings are often delayed for a myriad of unavoidable reasons. Honored guests may arrive late or get lost or a minor hair or wardrobe emergency might delay the ceremony. It’s nice to know that if your 4 pm ceremony doesn’t take place until 5 pm, you won’t have to cut an hour out of your reception.

Finally, schedule a visit to the venues you are considering. It’s alright to visit two or three in an area on the same day, but even three can blur together at the end of the day. Make sure you schedule at least an hour visit to each venue, with ample travel time in between. Most venues know their competitors, so ask how long it takes to get to the next venue from there!

When you visit, have a notebook, camera and anything else you think you might need to help you remember details. You’ll ask lots of question, and don’t be afraid to sound like a novice. Very few couples have planned a wedding before. You won’t be expected to know it all, so ask questions as they occur to you.  And write down the answers so you’ll remember.

Don’t be forced into a hasty decision. Most deposits that “hold the date” are actually non-refundable booking fees. Forfeiting a deposit is the best way to shoot a hole in your budget. Visit, take notes and pictures and then let the venue know you’ll contact them with questions later.  Give yourself and your intended time to sleep on what you’ve learned.

Planning your wedding is just a series of decisions. You won’t make them all at one time, and one decision usually helps with the next.  The venue selection is the first and usually the hardest. Once you’ve made that decision the rest will follow. I always advise my brides to just makeone decision each week or even month, depending upon how far in advance you are planning. You want to enjoy the planning process, not be overwhelmed by it.

By Kim Berkow of Castle Ladyhawke