Wedding Planning Guide

Wedding Day Timeline

Stay stress-free and on schedule by following our sample wedding day timelines.

wedding welcome sign

Photo: Paige Jones

Wedding Day Reception Timeline: Everything You Need to Know

To ensure your wedding day runs smoothly, it’s important to create a detailed, hour-by-hour wedding day timeline—doing so will help you stay organized, stress-free, and on time (because even running a few minutes late can throw the whole day off track). Once you’ve drafted your wedding day timeline, share it with your wedding-party members, wedding coordinator/planner, photographer, caterer, florist, and other vendors so everyone’s on the same page.

While most wedding receptions include the same flow of festivities, the order of these moments might vary depending on the couple’s preferences. Below are some suggestions for how much time to allot for each event, as well as a general order of things to help you plan the perfect wedding reception timeline.

COCKTAIL HOUR

Time: 1 hour
Depending on the logistics of your wedding reception, cocktail hour typically begins immediately following the ceremony (if the ceremony and reception are held at the same venue), or about 30 minutes later (if there’s travel involved). Cocktail hour is the kickoff to the reception and should last at least an hour. During this time, the bar will be open so guests can queue up for a drink; the catering staff will typically also serve hors d’oeuvres, as well as passed drinks, to get guests mingling and in a celebratory mood. This is also a great opportunity to sneak out with your photographer for sunset photos.

INVITATION TO DINNER

Time: 15 minutes
Following cocktail hour, guests are invited to take their seats for dinner in the main dining room.

GRAND ENTRANCE

Time: 10 minutes
Once everyone has found their seats, the newlyweds are formally introduced to wedding guests, often to a lot of cheering and fanfare. Some couple’s opt to precede their reception grand entrance with an introduction of wedding party members.

FIRST DANCE

Time: 5 minutes
Keep the energy high by transitioning straight into your first dance with your bride or groom. You can certainly choose tdo dance for a full song, or ask your band or DJ to fade out about two minutes in. Also, if you think your crowd will be itching to get on the dance floor, you can also schedule a dance set consisting of three to five songs after the first dance to get the party started before dinner.

WELCOME TOASTS

Time: 5 minutes
Following your first dance, you and your new spouse might want to take the opportunity—while all eyes are still on you—to thank everyone for attending the celebration. A family member, often the parents or a family member of the couple, typically also offers a wedding reception welcome toast, thanking guests and inviting everyone to enjoy the meal.

DINNER

Time: 45 minutes
Typically dinner will last about 45 minutes, depending on the meal-service style you choose for your reception (buffet, family-style, traditional three-course dinner, etc.).

WEDDING PARTY TOASTS

Time: 10 minutes
In between meal courses, wedding-party members are usually invited to say a few words—namely, the maid-of-honor and best man. This way, you’re spreading out the emotional, much-anticipated moments throughout the meal, which will help keep guests engaged. Encourage toasters to keep their speeches within two to four minutes.

PARENT DANCES

Time: 10-15 minutes
If you’re doing father-daughter and mother-son dances, then we recommend doing them after the toasts, and then transition to open dancing. Following the last parent dance, ask your band or DJ to switch to a high-energy song to get guests out of their seats and onto the dance floor.

BOUQUET AND GARTER TOSS

Time: 10 minutes
After the parent dances have wrapped up, next up in the wedding reception timeline are the bouquet and garter tosses. However, it’s becoming increasingly common to skip these traditions, so if the bouquet and garter tosses aren’t quite your style, don’t feel compelled to include them in your reception schedule.

CAKE CUTTING

Time: 10 minutes
About one hour before the conclusion of the reception, the catering staff should start preparing tables for dessert and coffee. Since the wedding cake cutting generally signals to guests that it's okay to leave soon thereafter, don't schedule it too early or things could start wrapping up before you're ready. This is also a good time for the couple to say a few words and thank guests for coming, if they have not already done so.

LAST SONG

Time: 5 minutes
Next, it’s back to open dancing until the last song, which should be scheduled five minutes before the conclusion of the reception.

GRAND EXIT

Time: 5 minutes
If you’re planning to depart from the reception in high style, schedule a grand exit as your final farewell. Some couples depart amid a sparkler send-off, while others opt for celebratory bells for guests to ring or noisemakers. Grab each other’s hand and make a dash for your waiting getaway car amid the cheers and well wishes.

And there you have it! Those are some of the most important events to consider when planning your wedding reception. We hope you now have a good understanding of how much time to assign to each event. To help keep your wedding day on track even further, we created these five fail-safe sample timelines based on the most common wedding day scenarios—use them as a guide to create your own.

Five Practical Hour-By-Hour Wedding Day Timelines

1. Sample Wedding Day Timeline: Ceremony & Reception at the Same Venue

This is likely the most common scenario, where both the ceremony and reception are being held at the same venue. This means guests won’t need to travel to a separate location for the reception, so cocktail hour can begin right after the ceremony has concluded, followed by dinner, toasts, dancing, and cake. Note that the schedule below assumes that the bride, groom, and their attendants will be getting ready at an offsite location(s) (such as someone's home or a hotel), then will travel to the wedding venue.

10:00 a.m. Hair and makeup artists arrive / getting ready

11:00 a.m. Vendors arrive for setup

12:00 p.m. Bride begins hair and makeup

1:00 p.m. Photographer arrives; begins shooting getting-ready photos

2:15 p.m. Bride gets into her wedding dress

2:40 p.m. Couples' "first look" and portraits

3:30 p.m. All wedding party members arrive at wedding venue

4:00 p.m. Wedding party and family photos with the couple

4:30 p.m. Guests begin to arrive / pre-ceremony music starts

5:00 p.m. Ceremony start time

6:00 p.m. Ceremony ends / cocktail hour begins

7:00 p.m. Cocktail hour ends / guests are invited into the reception

7:15 p.m. Newlyweds' introduction and first dance

7:20 p.m. All guests invited onto the dance floor

7:45 p.m. Guests return to their seats / first course is served

8:00 p.m. Welcome toast

8:15 p.m. First course is cleared and main course is served

8:45 p.m. Best man and maid of honor toasts

9:00 p.m. Parent dances (father-daughter dance and mother-son dance)

9:10 p.m. All guests invited onto the dance floor

10:00 p.m. Cake cutting / dessert is served

10:55 p.m. Last song

11:00 p.m. Guests depart

Midnight Breakdown complete



2. Sample Wedding Day Timeline: Ceremony & Reception at Different Venues

Sometimes having a gap of time between the ceremony and reception is inevitable—for example, perhaps you're having the wedding ceremony at a church in the afternoon, but then a nighttime dinner reception. While not the most ideal scenario, aim to keep the amount of time between the ceremony and reception around two to three hours; assuming both venues and the hotels are within 30 minutes of each other, that would give guests enough time to go back to the hotel to change and grab a bite, or a quick nap. Here is a sample wedding day timeline with a two-hour gap between the conclusion of the ceremony and the start of the reception.

8:00 a.m. Hair and makeup artists arrive / getting ready

9:00 a.m. Bride begins hair and makeup

10:00 a.m. Photographer arrives; begins shooting getting-ready photos

11:00 a.m. Bride gets into her wedding dress

Ceremony vendors arrive for ceremony setup

12:00 p.m. All wedding party members arrive at ceremony venue

12:15 p.m. Couples' "first look" and portraits

1:00 p.m. Wedding party and family photos with the couple

1:30 p.m. Guests begin to arrive / pre-ceremony music starts

2:00 p.m. Ceremony start time

2:45 p.m. Ceremony ends / guests have a break before the reception begins

3:00 p.m. Reception vendors arrive for reception set up

3:30 p.m. All guests depart from ceremony site

4:00 p.m. Ceremony site cleaned up / vendors depart

4:30 p.m. Reception doors open / guests begin to arrive

5:00 p.m. Reception invite time / cocktail hour begins

6:30 p.m. Cocktail hour ends / guests are invited into the reception

6:45 p.m. Newlyweds' introduction and first dance

All guests invited onto the dance floor

7:15 p.m. Guests return to their seats / first course is served

7:30 p.m. Welcome toast

7:45 p.m. First course is cleared and main course is served

8:15 p.m. Best man and maid of honor toasts

8:45 p.m. Parent dances (father-daughter dance and mother-son dance)

9:00 p.m. All guests invited onto the dance floor

10:00 p.m. Cake cutting / dessert is served

10:55 p.m. Last song

11:00 p.m. Guests depart

Midnight Breakdown complete



3. Sample Wedding Day Timeline: Morning Wedding

Even though a morning wedding sounds a bit unorthodox, there are many pros to having an AM wedding. First of all, brunch receptions can be more affordable than evening weddings—venues might have lower rental rates since your event isn't during peak hours; plus, brunch-menu fare tends to be less pricey than traditional dinner entrees like beef and seafood. Not to mention that your alcohol tab will likely be lower, since guests will drink less during the daytime than they would at a nighttime celebration. But, you will have to get up early (sorry, there's no way around it!) and the getting-ready process might feel a bit hectic. To ease the morning rush, it's best to get ready at the venue, if possible; schedule your hair and makeup artists to arrive at the wedding venue to minimize travel time. If you've decided you'd like to host a morning wedding, here is a sample wedding day timeline to help you get started.

7:00 a.m. Hair and makeup artists arrive / getting ready

7:30 a.m. Bride begins hair and makeup

Photographer arrives; begins shooting getting-ready photos

8:00 a.m. Vendors arrive for setup

8:30 a.m. Bride gets into her wedding dress

9:00 a.m. Wedding party and family photos start

9:30 a.m. Guests begin to arrive / pre-ceremony music starts

10:00 a.m. Ceremony start time

10:30 a.m Ceremony ends / mimosa bar opens

Couples' portraits

11:00 a.m. Newlyweds' introduction

11:05 a.m. Brunch reception begins

11:45 p.m. Best man and maid of honor toasts

12:15 p.m. First dance

All guests invited onto the dance floor

12:45 p.m. Cake cutting / dessert is served

1:25 p.m. Last song

1:30 p.m. Guests depart

2:30 p.m. Breakdown complete



4. Sample Wedding Day Timeline: Cake and Punch Reception

If you prefer something more low-key instead of a traditional sit-down dinner, then consider the old-school cake and punch reception. Back in the day, these types of celebrations were pretty common—wedding ceremonies were usually held in a church, followed by a cake and punch reception in the church basement. But these days, couples are putting a modern spin on the idea, serving an array of tasty hors d'oeuvres, sweets, and drinks in lieu of a sit-down dinner (and no, you don't have to serve only cake and punch!). Also, contrary to popular belief, a cake and punch reception does not mean a dry wedding—you can certainly provide alcoholic drinks as a part of your beverage offerings. Since the point of this style of reception is to serve small bites and sweets instead of a full meal, be sure to schedule your reception in the afternoon, when serving cake and punch (and other lighter fare) makes the most sense.

8:00 a.m. Hair and makeup artists arrive / getting ready

9:00 a.m. Bride begins hair and makeup

10:00 a.m. Photographer arrives; begins shooting getting-ready photos

11:00 a.m. Bride gets into her wedding dress

Vendors arrive for setup

12:00 p.m. All wedding party members arrive at wedding venue

12:15 p.m. Couples' "first look" and portraits

1:00 p.m. Wedding party and family photos start

1:30 p.m. Guests begin to arrive / pre-ceremony music starts

2:00 p.m. Ceremony start time

2:30 p.m. Ceremony ends

Guests move to reception space / light bites and drinks are served

3:30 p.m. Cake cutting / dessert is served

3:45 p.m. First dance

All guests invited onto the dance floor

5:25 p.m. Last song

5:30 p.m. Guests depart

6:30 p.m. Breakdown complete



5. Sample Wedding Day Timeline: Cocktail Party Reception

Here's another fun alternative to a formal sit-down dinner: a cocktail party reception. The concept is to turn the traditional cocktail hour into the main event, with nonstop rounds of hors d'oeuvres and small plates (which are usually the tastiest bites of the night, anyway!) instead of a seated, multicourse dinner. If you plan the food and drink menu right, your guests will be fully satiated (even without a sit-down meal) and you'll end up with a more relaxed-yet-festive atmosphere.

If that sounds like your ideal wedding vibe, just be sure to word your invitations precisely, so guests won't arrive expecting a five-course dinner (you could say something like "cocktail reception to follow" or "cocktails and hors d'oeuvres to follow"). Work with your caterer to create a menu that features foods that can easily be eaten while standing; small forks are OK but anything requiring a knife will be too complicated. Plan to serve the heartiest dishes around traditional dinner time and skip the large dining tables—instead, have a mix of tall and short cocktail tables, as well as lounge furniture, scattered throughout the space. You'll also want ample seating, of course, but you won't need to have a chair for every guest. The goal is to keep people mingling and moving about. To help you organize your cocktail party reception, use this sample wedding day timeline as a starting point.

10:00 a.m. Hair and makeup artists arrive / getting ready

11:00 a.m. Bride begins hair and makeup

12:00 p.m. Photographer arrives; begins shooting getting-ready photos

1:00 p.m. Bride gets into her wedding dress

2:00 p.m. Vendors arrive for setup

3:00 p.m. All wedding party members arrive at wedding venue

3:15 p.m. Couples' "first look" and portraits

4:00 p.m. Wedding party and family photos start

4:30 p.m. Guests begin to arrive / pre-ceremony music starts

5:00 p.m. Ceremony start time

5:30 p.m. Ceremony ends

Cocktail party reception begins / bar opens / first round of hors d'oeuvres are passed

6:00 p.m. Sunset couples' portraits

6:45 p.m. "Dinner" rounds of food (heavier menu items) are passed

7:15 p.m. Best man and maid of honor toasts

7:30 p.m. First dance

All guests invited onto the dance floor

9:00 p.m. Cake cutting / dessert is served

9:55 p.m. Last song

10:00 p.m. Guests depart

11:00 p.m. Breakdown complete

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