I believe that each and every wedding needs two very specific things:  a well organized plan + an overall design & vision. One key component of that “organized plan” is to have a well crafted wedding day timeline. However, you are wondering where to begin? In this wedding day timeline series, I am going to guide you in how to put together a well crafted wedding timeline so you can enjoy the “free-flow” of your own wedding day. 

Let’s get started…

Have you ever been to a wedding where everything just seemed to flow naturally? There was never any awkward downtime. The bride and groom didn’t feel frantic or rushed. Everyone stayed until the bitter end dancing and celebrating. It may have seemed very organic and completely unorchestrated.

Well let me let you in on a little secret. Every wedding that flows like this has one really good, highly orchestrated timeline behind it. Events throughout the night are scheduled down to the minute and there’s a particular flow that keeps everyone engaged.

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. I am going to try and shed some light on how to keep your wedding day moving, no matter what kind of wedding you’re having.

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. Starting and ending the wedding on time is the key—hitting everything in the middle in the approximate right order is important, but you usually have to adjust a little to fit your event with the kind of guests that are attending.

When crafting your wedding day timeline, here are 9 tips you need to know…

#1 Think about your wedding’s unique logistics.

There are several decisions you’ll need to make before you can start creating your wedding day timeline. If you can answer these questions, you’re probably ready to start creating your wedding day schedule!  

Questions to Ask Before Creating a Wedding Day Timeline

  • Will you be getting ready at your ceremony location or somewhere else (like a hotel with a room block reserved for you and your guests)?
  • Are your ceremony and reception in separate locations? If so, you’ll have to factor travel time into your wedding timeline.
  • Will you be providing transportation for your wedding party members and/or guests? If so, this can make travel a bit smoother and quicker.
  • Are you planning on having a “first look” and doing photos before the ceremony? Or would you rather wait until the cocktail hour to do couple and group portraits?
  • How long will your ceremony be? This will require a discussion with your officiant.
  • Will your cocktail hour take place between the ceremony and reception or before the ceremony?
  • Will you have a receiving line?
  • How many toasts or special dances will you have?
  • Does your reception venue have a curfew, meaning you’ll have to end the reception at a specific time? Your wedding reception timeline will be tighter if you have to end the party at a predetermined time.
  • Are you doing a first dance or other traditional dances at your reception?
  • How much time is included in your vendors’ contracts? How long will your photographers (DJ/band, videographer, etc.) be present at your wedding?
  • Are you hosting an after-party or parties?

#2 Start your wedding timeline from scratch.

Every wedding is different, so copying a wedding timeline template you found on the internet word-for-word is probably not going to work for your big day (of course you can use templates as inspiration). Start fresh, and use your ceremony time as a starting point. Make a list of all of the events (getting ready, photo sessions, cocktail hour, first dance) that need to happen before and after the ceremony, and then determine how long each of these will take. You can start to plot your wedding day accordingly. Check out the wedding timeline template below as a guide (but again, don’t copy this verbatim.  It’s just to get you started)

#3 Think early. Like, really, really early.

Let’s face it, your wedding is going to be a long (but awesome!) day, and there’s no such thing as starting the getting-ready process too soon—particularly if you’re planning on taking photos before your ceremony. If your ceremony starts at 4 p.m., for example, we recommend starting to prep at around 9 a.m. Yes, it may seem insanely early, but realize that it can take 90 minutes (or more!) for a bride to get her hair and makeup done. And if your bridesmaids are also getting their hair and makeup professionally done, that adds even more time. And an entire portrait session, including couple’s portraits and family photos will likely take about an hour or more, as well. Add more time if you’re planning on taking portraits at different locations! So yes, starting your wedding day as early as possible is a great idea.

#4 Talk to the day timeline tip

Wedding planners and venue event managers are usually the go-to sources to assist you in creating your “official” wedding day timeline. They’ll have a good idea of how to plan out the day based on their experience, and know how to adjust your vision to fit the realities of time. You’ll also want to speak with your other vendors to find out how long they’ll need for set-up and prep so that you can schedule them accordingly and provide them with enough time to complete their tasks. You have hired them to be amazing, give them enough time to be amazing at what they do.

#5 Add some buffers…

There are going to be some little (but important) details that you may forget to include in your wedding timeline—including eating breakfast (super-important!), signing the marriage license, and more. Your wedding planner or venue event manager will know what these are and can help you schedule them in, but make sure that your schedule allows for small cushions of time. If there’s any form of transportation involved (to the ceremony or from the ceremony to the reception), be sure to allow at least a 15-minute buffer in case there’s unexpected traffic or other delays. You’ll be glad you did!

#6 But not on the invitation.

If you’re worried about your guests running late, it can be tempting to put an earlier ceremony start time on your invitation to ensure everyone arrives on time—or early. My advice: Resist. The. Urge. Your guests will get annoyed if they arrive “on time” only to have to wait an extra 15 minutes or half-hour for the ceremony to begin (even more if you’re running late!). Instead, factor in an additional 5-10 minutes to your ceremony start time to give everyone a chance to find their seats and get settled. Also be sure to have ushers on hand to direct any late arrivals to their seats at an appropriate time after the ceremony has started.

#7 Remember your photographer.

Wedding photography packages usually include the number of hours your photographer will work on your wedding day—this is super-important. If you want your photographer to photograph your whole entire day—including you and your bridal party getting ready—you’ll need to pay for at least eight hours of coverage—and that may not even take your photographer to the very end of your reception. Think about how much time you have with your photographer, and when you’d like them to start and finish shooting on your big day. If you’ve paid for less than eight hours, you’ll need to be strategic about when your photographer will start and finish and decide if it’s more important for your photographer to shoot your getting-ready activities or the end of the night.

#8 Don’t make guests wait to eat.

Even though your wedding guests will likely have just enjoyed cocktail hour, you shouldn’t make them wait too long before dinner is served (lest they get hangry!). Dinner should be served at the most half an hour to 45 minutes after the reception begins. The way you serve your meal is up to you and your caterer and/or venue—but think about how you schedule the meal, the toasts, and the dancing portion of the evening. Will you stagger the courses and allow for dance breaks in between? Or serve the entire meal first and then start the dancing?

#9 Distribute your wedding agenda to all and everyone.

Your wedding day timeline should be given to all of your vendors, as well as any VIPs (family members, wedding party, etc.) one to two weeks before the wedding. That way, everyone knows where they are supposed to be and when. On the day of your wedding, your wedding planner or event coordinator should be the “keeper of the timeline,” making sure things are running smoothly, but also enlist a family or wedding party member to keep an eye on the clock and enforce the schedule.

I can not stress enough how important it is to sit down together and work through your wedding day timeline.  It will be time well spent! Your wedding party will enjoy it, your guests will “oo-and-ah” to you for it and you will never regret it!

Coming soon…

Wedding Day Timeline Rules Every Couple Should Know (Part 2)

Wedding Day Timeline Mistakes Couple Make (Part 3)

Wedding Day Timeline: Frequently Asked Questions (Part 4)


Central Wisconsin Wedding Planner


Marsha VanArk at Distinctly Yours Wedding & Events