The Ultimate Wedding Day Of Timeline Guide

bride and groom under a veil at sunset

Creating your wedding timeline doesn’t have to be stressful. Weddings follow a predictable order. Once you know the time your ceremony or reception is going to start, you can easily create your timeline based on the guide below.

Here’s a step by step guide to create your wedding timeline

First, identify your anchor point.

By anchor point, we mean the time you’re given by either your venue or the church / temple (or both!) as the starting time. You’ll almost always receive a firm start and end time from your venue and/or your ceremony location.

If you’re having a wedding in an untraditional location or at an earlier time of the day you might have some more flexibility in what the start time is. In that case, anchor your day around a meal time. For example, with a Saturday morning wedding you might want to serve lunch. So if lunch is usually at noon or one, then you’ll want to build your wedding timeline around that time.

Second, slot in the major events around your anchor in this order:

  • Ceremony
  • Cocktail Hour
  • Reception
  • Dinner
  • End
  • (Optional) After Party.

To do this, you’ll need to know how long each event typically is. And you’ll need to decide what to do about any gaps. We’ll get to more details later in this post but here is a basic outline of how long each event is and what order they go in.

step-by-step wedding order of events and how long each event is
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Third, block in other important moments in the day.

You’re going to slot in the other moments of the day from when you need to meet with your wedding party to get ready, to speeches, to when shuttles are going to take people back to their hotels and any after parties. Keep reading to see real world examples and exactly how to schedule your own.

Here’s a list of all the events you need to consider:

  • meet to get ready
  • hair and makeup
  • breakfast or lunch for the wedding party
  • decorations set up
  • deliveries/arrivals from any vendors (e.g. florist or photographer)
  • toast or speeches
  • garter / bouquet toss
  • entertainment (e.g. live painting, photo booth, etc.)
  • special dances (e.g. first dance, father / daughter dance, etc.)
  • after party
  • shuttle pick up / drop offs
wedding timeline checklist
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Example wedding day of timeline with major events

Here’s a real world example. I booked a venue that let me start with a cocktail hour as early as 4:30 pm. Great time for a cocktail hour since normal dinner time is around 5 or 6 pm. They specified that dinner would be at 6 pm. Unfortunately, our church ceremony was booked next and they had us start at 2 pm. Non negotiable. If you’re not seeing the problem, let me break it down for you.

  • 2-3 pm Ceremony
  • 3:00 – 4:30 pm ????
  • 4:30 pm Cocktail Hour
  • 5:30 Entrances and speeches
  • 6 pm Dinner

What would we do with that hour and a half gap? Don’t worry I won’t keep you hanging for the rest of the blog post to find out. We ended up creating a wedding program for our ceremony that advised guests they could take a leisurely walk down the main road, stop at any of the college bars for a drink or a snack, or do some shopping, and eventually make their way to the venue. It was a 15 minute walk with some hustle so we knew with a distraction or two, it would fill up the rest of the time.

What to do if there’s a gap between your ceremony and reception?

As you saw from my example, an hour and a half gap is not ideal. In hind sight, we could’ve negotiated with either the church or the venue to close that gap a bit. Ultimately, it wasn’t an issue for our guests because we gave them some ideas of what to do.

If you have more than a thirty minute gap between your ceremony and reception, you should give your guests some ideas with how to fill the time. This is key to a good guest experience. You can arrange entertainment and transportation during this time or you can provide a list or map with helpful suggestions.

If you don’t give your guests some ideas of how to spend the time, you may have friends and family members skip the ceremony and only attend the reception. This is especially true if the hotel they are staying in or where they live is a bit of a drive. No one wants to travel 30+ minutes for a ceremony to then have to wait around until the reception starts. Or have to drive back home, only to have to leave again a little while later to go to the reception.

Do your guests a favor and suggest a cute coffee place or bar to stop at nearby on your wedding website or in your programs.

Now, to answer your questions about how to plot out the rest of the day.

When is the cocktail hour?

The cocktail hour is after the ceremony and before the reception or dinner. It is generally used as time for photos for the bride and groom, and a time for guests to mingle, drink and have a light bite before dinner.

For example, if your ceremony starts at 2 pm and dinner isn’t being served until 6 pm, a cocktail hour from 3:30 pm to 5 pm would give guests a snack and something to do and break up the time before dinner.


Do I need to have a cocktail hour?

Having a cocktail hour is not necessary if you’re having a shorter day or looking to save money. It is considered important if there’s a long period of time (i.e. 3+ hours) in your schedule without some sort of food for guests. Here are a few additional reasons to consider a cocktail hour:

  • there’s a long gap between the ceremony and dinner time
  • need time dedicated to taking photos as a couple or with your wedding party
  • you or your guests love appetizers (maybe even more than typical wedding dinner food)
  • plan to serve something special to your guests that would be better served as a passed hors d’oeuvre
  • you want your guests to socialize before a seated dinner
  • providing entertainment that would disrupt dinner and dancing (e.g. a musician, photo booth, cartoonist, etc.)
  • would like time to sneak away and have a private moment as a newly wed couple (e.g. read personalized vows, get a break from being the center of attention, etc.)

How long is the cocktail hour?

The answer is in the question. A cocktail hour is typically one hour long. It can extend up to two hours long.

Ultimately, your cocktail hour can be as short or as long as you’d like it to be. If you’re trying to fill a large gap between the ceremony and reception, the cocktail hour could take place the entire time. As long as guests are fed, have drinks, and entertainment (socializing is entertainment), you’re good to go. I’ve been to quite a few weddings with a two-hour cocktail hour portion.

couple's first dance with sparklers

When do you dance at a wedding?

Dancing at a wedding happens after dinner is completed or in between courses. If you’re getting married at a venue they usually have a recommendation for how they usually schedule dinner and dancing. Otherwise, you can decide based on your personal preference.

Some venues recommend that dancing is staggered between courses.

This elongates the dinner portion of the evening and gives guests something to do while waiting for their next course to be served. The pros of this approach is that you don’t have hangry guests watching other tables get served before their own table. You can dance while you wait. And you can schedule activities around courses. So when the salad or appetizer course is served, you have some toasts. When the main course is served, you can have the first dance, and parent dances. When dessert is served, you can have a focused cake cutting moment. You can add in things like a garter or bouquet toss or other moments that are traditional to your culture.

The cons to this approach is that it can make dinner feel like a long affair, especially for anyone who doesn’t plan on partying until midnight like older relatives or those with kids. Weddings I’ve been to with this approach might not get to the main course until 9 pm and the cake until 10 pm. Meaning you’re not getting out of there until 11 pm if you want to be polite and wait until the cake is cut.

Other venues serve dinner first and then have dancing afterwords.

This is especially true if you’re serving dinner buffet or family style. Not sure what the difference is? We have a separate article about the pros and cons of different ways to serve wedding dinners here. The pros of structuring your wedding this way is that guests can have a dedicated time to eat and you can plan your activities during this time when you have their captive attention (e.g. toasts), then you have a dedicated time to dance.

When do you do speeches at a wedding?

Wedding speeches are during dinner. They’re usually the first scheduled activity after everyone is seated and the entrances of the wedding party and married couple.

Having a toast at an important gathering dates all the way back to the 6th century B.C. in Ancient Greece. Wedding toasts or speeches are an important time for close family and friends to honor you as a couple. The speeches generally consist of some anecdotes that exemplify your relationship as a couple and / or advice for your marriage.

Any speeches given should be short (1-2 minutes) and you should limit the number of people giving toasts to 4-5 people. For example, your maid of honor, your best man, and both sets of your parents. This will keep the total time needed for speeches to 15 minutes.

bride and groom cutting a cake with a timeline of events on the table

When do you cut the cake?

The newly married couple cuts the cake after dinner is over and during dancing. This is a ceremonial cake cutting, where the couple feeds each other a piece in front of their guests for good luck. It is generally one of the last events of the wedding before last call and a send off.

How long does a cake cutting last?

Cake cutting is generally a fifteen minute event. It is mostly a photo opportunity for the couple to ceremonially cut the first piece of cake, feed it to each other and then the rest of the cake is cut by the caterers.

Example 12 hour wedding day of timeline

Now back to our real world example. With the major events in place, we can slot in the rest of the activities.

  • 10 am – hair & make up (breakfast delivered to the salon)
  • 10:30 am – groomsmen meet to get ready and have breakfast
  • 11:30 am – shuttle picks up bridal party at the salon
  • 11:45 am – photographer arrives
  • 12 pm – getting ready photos (take out snacks for lunch)
  • 12:30 pm – shuttle picks up groomsmen
  • 1:00 pm – shuttle picks up bridesmaids
  • 1:15 pm – arrive at the church
  • 1:30 pm – guests arrive
  • 2 pm – ceremony begins
  • 3 pm – ceremony ends
  • 3-4:30 pm – guests can shop, eat, drink in town and make their way to the reception
  • 3:30 pm – photos for the bride and groom, break for the wedding party
  • 4 pm – photos with the wedding party
  • 4:30 pm – cocktail hour and lawn games begin
  • 5:30 pm – guests seating, entrance of wedding party, and toasts
  • 6:30 pm – dinner
  • 7:00 pm – first dance
  • 7:10 pm – dancing begins
  • 8 pm – cake cutting
  • 9:30 pm – last call – shuttles start taking people back to hotels and leave every 30 minutes until 10:30 pm
  • 9:45 pm – goodbyes and send off
  • 10 pm – end of reception

This is what a 12 hour wedding timeline looks like. If you add an after party, you’ll easily be at 14+ hours.

Example 6 hour wedding day of timeline

If you’re having a shorter wedding, here’s a sample 6 hour timeline for a dessert-only (or cake and punch) afternoon reception.

  • 7:30 am – couple, maid of honor and best man meet to set up decorations and drop off cake and drinks at the venue
  • 9 am – bridesmaids meet up to get ready at mother-of-the-bride’s house and have breakfast
  • 9:30 am – groomsmen meet to get ready and have breakfast
  • 10:30 am – wedding party takes cabs to the venue
  • 10:45 am – photographer arrives
  • 11 am – ceremony at the venue
  • 11:30 am – dessert only reception starts
  • 11:45 am – champagne toast
  • 12 pm – cake cutting
  • 12:15-12:45 pm – a few photos with the couple and key members of the wedding party
  • 12:45 pm – photographer leaves (couple negotiated a mini-session of 2 hours)
  • 1:30 pm – reception ends with a bubble send off

As you can see the main order of events is unchanged but some events are shorter due to the nature of the wedding being a more casual, daytime affair.


Jaime is the owner of Loud Bride and Coast Designs LLC. She got married in 2017 in Geneseo, NY and designed her own wedding invitations and programs for the occasion. Now, she designs bespoke wedding stationery and affordable templates for other couples. She lives in New York city with her husband and two children.

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