From flowers to photography, everything seems to cost more when it comes to weddings – so much so that the common advice when pricing up items is to “add a zero to it”.
However, according to UAE wedding experts, some couples add yet more zeros when planning their nuptials, with one wedding in Dubai said to have involved a Dh1 million bill – and that’s just for the flowers.
Yet others are more frugal, having small wedding gatherings or booking cheaper venues away from pricey beach areas, to keep costs down.
So what do you get for your money? Here’s a guide for those planning to tie the knot for Dh100,000 or less, a mid-range budget of Dh200,000 and – for the most lavish affairs – a cool Dh1 million or more.
Less than Dh100,000
Planning your big day on a budget can be done – although it requires meticulous planning to keep the costs down.
Some five-star hotels offer wedding food and drink packages for about Dh220 per person – meaning the cost for a reception for 100 people is around Dh22,000. But throw in the flowers, dress, photographer, honeymoon, transport, cake and other expenses and it quickly adds up.
There are, however, several cost-cutting tips that make it possible to throw your dream five-star wedding for under Dh100,000, wedding experts say.
“There are brides who do it on a shoestring budget,” says Rhiannon Downie-Hurst, founding publisher and editor-in-chief of the weddings website BrideClubME.com.
“We’ve seen a trend here in the UAE of brides being more budget- conscious – they’re doing a lot more DIY. My own wedding in Dubai was on a very strict budget. I managed to do my whole wedding for Dh127,000, and that included the rings and honeymoon to Africa, to Zanzibar.”
Couples can save money by cutting the wedding favours, sending electronic invitations, and using candles instead of flowers, Ms Downie-Hurst says. Shopping for the essentials at the right time of year can also pay off, she adds.
“A lot of bridal boutiques put on flash sales in January and during the summer … I got my wedding dress in the sale at 40 per cent off,” she says. “You can negotiate with vendors. But there are certain things that I wouldn’t scrimp on, like the photography.”
Those on a budget should consider the “hidden” costs associated with weddings, such as temporary entertainment licences for evening performers, Ms Downie-Hurst adds.
“Lighting, for example, or sound, or licences for the performers – these are the sort of things that a lot of brides do not consider when they are planning their wedding in terms of budget,” she says. “Things do pile up in terms of costs, which is why I recommend right at the beginning [that couples] have a spreadsheet covering everything, even the odd quirky things.”
Having your wedding outside the UAE peak season – which roughly lasts from November to April – can also help to reduce costs, Ms Downie-Hurst says. And slashing the guest list is of course the brutal but “No 1 way to save money”, she adds.
Zainab Alsalih, owner and managing director of the Dubai-based wedding organiser and events company Carousel, says weddings in the UAE are relatively expensive compared to elsewhere in the world.
“People think that we have a lot of venues, but technically we don’t. There is a lot more demand for the popular venues. Which means that the chances of getting a great deal are not as high,” she says.
“There are also not many vendors and suppliers, and there are not many good photographers and videographers when it comes to weddings. So sometimes trying to get a discount or a bargain is a bit more difficult given our condensed wedding season.”
Ms Alsalih says those with a wedding budget below Dh100,000 would not have much opportunity for “customising” their reception.
“People with limited budgets should consider using whatever the hotel offers them. Use the hotel’s tables, chairs and linens. Some hotels offer packages for couples – they will offer them a small flower arrangement, a small three-tier cake,” she says, adding that she would not advise those on a lower budget to use the wedding planning services her own company offers.
Instead, she says, an on-the-day wedding organiser costing a few thousand dirhams would be more realistic.
According to Ms Downie-Hurst, western expatriate couples in the UAE typically spend about Dh200,000 on their wedding day.
That money will comfortably book a five-star hotel for 100 guests, and include a luxury dress and hefty spending on flowers.
Popular venues at this price range include hotels such as the Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah and The Ritz-Carlton JBR, according to Ms Alsalih, who adds that couples with this budget can customise their big day more.
“You would be looking at having room to get creative, being able to spend a little bit more on your florals, being able to hire a band versus just a DJ,” she said. “It’s a beautiful, elegant wedding but not necessarily over the top.”
There is also room to splash out on transport for the day. The Dubai-based Platinum Heritage Luxury Tours and Safaris offers a range of wedding cars for hire, complete with chauffeurs. Its most popular model for wedding bookings is a classic 1965 Bentley limousine, which can be rented for Dh800 an hour, for a minimum of three hours, including a driver. It also has a range of restored, open-top vintage Land Rovers (rental prices vary), as well as chauffeur-driven Range Rover Vogue models in black and white, available to rent for Dh5,000 for five hours.
Dh1 million plus
Rolling up in a Rolls-Royce, bottles of Chanel perfume doled out as gifts to guests, and flowers galore: this is the UAE wedding at its most lavish for budgets of Dh1m or more.
Ms Alsalih says her company has organised several weddings at this price point – including one for 1,000 people that cost Dh2.8m, including a floral budget of Dh1m.
It is mainly Arab and Asian couples who splurge money like this on weddings, primarily because of the culture of inviting hundreds, if not thousands of guests, says Ms Downie-Hurst.
“The Arabic and Indian communities can spend up to Dh1m- plus on their weddings,” she says. “Indian expats have three-day weddings … they fly in their guests from abroad.”
Venues that cater for such receptions include the Dubai World Trade Centre, Armani Hotel and JW Marriott Marquis in Dubai, and the Emirates Palace and St Regis in Abu Dhabi.
Designer giveaways for guests and wedding dresses worth up to Dh300,000 are not uncommon at such events, says Ms Downie-Hurst.
Ms Alsalih says weddings costing Dh1m-plus are generally catering for 500 or more guests, and involve a high degree of customisation.
“We would have had their linens custom-made,” she explains. “Guests would get luxury gifts as well. The menu would be extensive [and there would be] several entertainment acts, even flying in celebrity performers, artists and singers.”
Even spartan halls at venues such as the Dubai World Trade Centre can be completely fitted out for extravagant receptions – at a price.
“With these budgets, we are technically speaking about transformations,” adds Ms Alsalih. “We have been asked to transform ballrooms into gardens, where we would completely cover it in florals.”
My Dh60,000 wedding … with flowers from Spinneys
Floral budgets for weddings can run into hundreds of thousands of dirhams. But Rachael Bruford found a way to avoid such a huge expense – all thanks to a quick trip to her local Spinneys.
The 33-year-old Dubai resident wanted to tie the knot on a budget. And bulk-buying supermarket flowers the day before she got married was just one of the ways she managed to save big bucks, with the maid of honour then assembling the bouquets.
“All the flowers were from Spinneys. It was crazy when I think about it,” says Ms Bruford. “We literally went into Spinneys the day before the wedding and picked from what they had.”
Her entire wedding cost just Dh60,000 – a fraction of what many spend on their nuptials in the UAE, where the more elaborate ceremonies clock in at Dh1 million or more.
“A lot of couples start their married life in debt from their wedding, and they’re still paying off credit cards,” says Ms Bruford. “We didn’t want to get into debt … But we also wanted to have a really great time.”
Ms Bruford, who has been working for the wedding website BrideClubME.com since last September, says that the overall cost of her April 2015 wedding was “significantly below average” for the UAE. But it wasn’t quite the casual affair her hubby-to-be had wanted.
“If my husband had had his way, we would have basically just had a big party at home, and that would be it. I had other ideas,” she says.
“I did want a proper wedding. So what we decided is that we would spend money in a couple of key areas, and the rest we would try to do as much ourselves as possible, so that we could save money on other parts of it.”
One of the non-negotiables was the dress. After scouring the shops in Dubai and finding nothing she liked, Ms Bruford ended up flying back to her native UK to buy her dream wedding gown for Dh9,000.
Another thing she didn’t scrimp on was the photographer, who charged about Dh12,000 for 10 hours on the wedding day, and threw in a free engagement shoot.
“At the end of the day, we thought that photographs were important, just to capture the day and being able to remember it,” Ms Bruford says.
So how did Ms Bruford pull off her “big day” at such a small cost?
One key factor was having the wedding on a weekday, which tends to be cheaper, as well as the choice of the venue – The Desert Palm hotel, which is close to Dubai International City, but far from the pricier beach hotels along the coastline.
“It was slightly out of town, but not too much, and it was probably about half the cost of having the same thing on a beach,” says Ms Bruford.
The reception cost a total of Dh35,000, which included a sit-down meal and four hours of drinks for 50 people. Around 30 additional guests joined the reception in the evening, at no extra charge – and Ms Bruford bargained with the hotel to get a free night’s stay in the wedding suite.
She also saved money by driving to the venue herself and using a minibus to transport the groomsmen, hiring a DJ instead of a band, buying the cake from Lime Tree Cafe, and making all the invites and wedding decorations at home.
“For about nine months we were collecting various different glass jars, which we then cleaned up; I spray-painted some of them, to put the flowers in,” says Ms Bruford.
The bride estimates she saved tens of thousands of dirhams thanks to her DIY wedding approach – although acknowledges that the run-up to the big day was a stressful time. And there was one thing Ms Bruford wishes she had spent money on: hiring a wedding coordinator for the day.