You don’t have to put together a wedding timeline, but it will make life easier for everyone if you do. A timeline tells the major players in your big day where they need to be and when – and it lets your photographer know when the important moments are going to be happening.
Most weddings last about six hours from the time the ceremony starts until the time the last note is played at the reception. That’s the timeline we’ve included below. If your allotted time is more or less, adjust accordingly. And no matter what, include buffer time and always assume you’ll need more time than you think.
And, if you’ve hired a wedding planner or your venue has a day-of coordinator, you might not have to worry about any of this. Timelines are often part of those professionals’ jobs.
You’ll need to start dressing for your wedding four to six hours in advance. Considering that the bride’s hair can take an hour and her make up can take another hour, you don’t want to rush this step. Be sure to allow 30-45 minutes for each bridesmaid’s hair, and another 30-45 for each girl’s makeup.
If you’ve got one person doing hair and one person doing make up, add the time up to see when you should start. If you’ve got a large bridal party — or you’ve invited Mom or the flower girl to get her hair done, too – ask your beauty vendors to bring an assistant (or two).
Bridal Guide recommends doing the bride last and asking the photographer to come an hour before she will be ready. You’ll get great preparation shots.
Add more time to your pre-wedding schedule if you’re doing any group or family shots or want to do “first look” pictures with your fiancé(e) before the ceremony. If everyone is organized, group shots should take 2-3 minutes apiece; allow 15-30 minutes for your first look.
Your ceremony will take 30-60 minutes, typically, depending on whether it is a religious or secular ceremony. A Practical Wedding recommends starting your ceremony 15 minutes after the time stated on your invitation; it’s a near certainty that someone on your guest list is going to be late. This prevents them from entering at a bad time.
Taking pictures after your ceremony? Keep it short; it’s best to keep the gap between your ceremony and reception to an hour or less.
Now, the party begins. Not surprisingly, cocktail hours last about (you guess it!) an hour. Here’s the timing for some other key moments of the reception:
First dance: The first dance typically takes place at one of two times: Immediately after you are introduced late in the cocktail hour or after dinner to open up the dance floor.
Other dances: These dances usually take place after the bride and groom’s first dance, but if you’re doing your first dance before dinner, it’s OK to save the father-daughter and mother-son dances until after dinner.
Toasts: If you’ve got less than three toasts, Offbeat Bride recommends doing them before dinner. More than that, and you should wait until about half an hour until after dinner starts.
Dinner: Dinner at a wedding usually lasts an hour to an hour and a half.
Cake cutting: Cut your cake about 45 minutes after you’ve opened the dance floor, either by the first dances or the honor dances. It’s traditionally considered OK to leave a wedding after the cake is cut, so don’t wait to late into the night to do this. Older guests and guests with children may need to leave, and we’re of the opinion that no one should miss cake.
Garter and bouquet toss: If you’re including these wedding traditions, do them right after you cut the cake.
Send off: Give guests a head’s up – 10-15 minutes – if you’re doing a big send off. This also lets them know the party is nearly over.