A couple pose on the beach after their elopement wedding

Elopement vs Intimate Wedding: What’s the Difference?

Both elopements and small weddings involve small numbers. However, there are some differences between the two.

If you’re considering eloping for your wedding, you might also be wondering whether an intimate wedding is the right choice for you. After all, both types of ceremony are characterized by their small and intimate settings. While there are many similarities between the two an elopement is not the same as a small wedding.

What is an Elopement?

A traditional definition of eloping is when the bride and groom run away together, in secret, to get married. Whilst that does still happen, more modern understanding of elopement is a very small ceremony that takes place in a non-traditional location.

Locations for an elopement can vary. Couples may wish to get married on a beach, in the mountains or travel to a different state. Whatever the preference, the beauty of an elopement is that the couple gets full control of their wedding, and aren’t restricted by the traditions and logistics of a venue wedding.

A bridge and groom on a boat cruise elopement, photographed on the Mississippi River in August 2022 by Rachel Sue Photography
A boat cruise elopement on the Mississippi River – August 2022.

What is an Intimate Wedding?

An intimate wedding has similarities to an elopement, but also shares more in common with a traditional wedding ceremony.

An intimate, or microwedding as it can be called, is a more traditional wedding but performed in front of a small number of guests. As the name suggests, they are much more intimate and offer a great personalized experience for the couple.

So an intimate wedding sits somewhere in between an elopement and a typical full-scale wedding. While they don’t have the huge scale and spectacle of a large wedding, there are usually more guests than an elopement and incorporate some of the more traditional aspects: such as the ceremony itself, the planning that goes into it, and the traditional party afterwards.

Many couples choose a small wedding to get more bang for their buck. With a more limited number of guests, couples can spend their wedding budget and give an amazing experience to a smaller number of people. With fewer people to seat, cater for, buy wedding party favors for and so on, the cost can be significantly smaller than a traditional large wedding while still spending more per-guest.

The combination of providing an extra special day with your higher cost-per-guest, and only having close friends and family, can make an intimate wedding the day of your dreams without worrying about managing large numbers.

A couple kiss in front of guests at an intimate wedding in Iverson Park, Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Photographed by Rachel Sue Photography in June 2022.
An intimate wedding keeps some traditional features, but reduces the guest list to a small number of close friends and family – Photographed in June 2022 at Iverson Park, Stevens Point, Wisonsin.

What are the Main Differences Between Eloping and Small Weddings?

So as you can see, elopement and microweddings both cater for couples who like a smaller and more personalized day without the hassle and stresses of planning a large event.

However, there are some key differences that set elopements and intimate weddings apart.

Number of Guests

Although it doesn’t have to, an elopement usually takes place in front of very few guests: sometimes just a tiny number of family members are present, and in some states you don’t even require witnesses or an officiant: it can be just the couple in an intensely private occasion.

Whereas an intimate wedding expands the number of guests that are present. Typically, intimate weddings see fewer than 50 guests present which is a much higher number than elopements.

Venue

A small wedding usually takes place in a more traditional setting: a religious building, civic hall, hotel or a park. Basically, any kind of location that would also hold a large wedding. The only real difference is that the numbers of guests will be fewer.

With an elopement, the sky is the limit (literally for this couple). You could get married on a beach, on a riverboat, in your RV, at the top of a mountain, or anywhere else that you can imagine. This makes eloping a great choice for couples who really want to show their character and uniqueness on their day.

It’s worth noting though, that the venues for an elopement and an intimate wedding can cross over. Destination weddings are a good example of this.

A bridge and groom kiss by the pool in Key West, Florida, after their intimate destination wedding.
This poolside wedding in Key West, Florida, was a lovely intimate wedding. The venue could also work for an elopement.

Cost

The average elopement is less expensive than other kinds of wedding. With the average wedding in the USA costing around $28,000, the average cost of an elopement at $5,000 – 15,000 represents a huge difference in costs.

With fewer guests to cater for, a smaller venue to hire (or perhaps no venue at all), and maybe no traditional wedding party to arrange, an elopement represents a very low cost way to wed. That shouldn’t be mistaken for “cheap,” though. Many couple choose to spend a lot on just themselves. Travel costs also need to be factored in, which can vary massively depending on distance and method of travel.

An intimate wedding involves a larger number of guests than an elopement, and usually this brings a higher cost. With a traditional wedding party included as well, the cost of a small wedding is much higher than eloping. Many intimate weddings actually cost the same as a large wedding because couples choose to spend the same money on a better experience for their smaller number of guests.

The Ceremony

Microweddings often take place in a more traditional way: with an officiant, guests and witnesses all present.

With an elopement, this may happen but is often unnecessary. Couples who elope can choose any kind of ceremony they’d like, so long as it falls within state law, or even choose to forgo a formal ceremony altogether.

A couple pose with their dog after their elopement wedding. Photographed at Garden City Beach, South Carolina, by Rachel Sue Photography.
Nikole and James were married on Garden City Beach, South Carolina, with their dog – Photographed in August 2022.

The Centre of Attention

An elopement puts the focus of the entire day on just the couple. No dramas about who to invite, where to seat which guests, worries about impressing everyone with a lavish wedding party. Simply put, eloping means that a couple does exactly what they want to do, without thinking about anyone else’s expectations.

While a small wedding does take away many stresses of planning a large event, there is still a number of guests to manage including planning a wedding party. Whilst many couples love it, this style simply isn’t for everyone.

Summary: Elopements vs Intimate Weddings

Both elopement and small weddings give the couple the chance to take more control of their day. They offer the chance to get away from some of the traditions and formalities of the typical wedding, and provide a different experience.

Eloping is a great choice for adventurous couples who want something totally unique, or simply want to wed in a more private setting.

Intimate weddings may be what you’re looking for if you love the idea of a traditional wedding day, but with a smaller group of close friends and family.

Either way, I love photograph both kinds. If you’d like more information about my wedding or elopement photography, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you!