Getting married in Vegas sounded so easy right? Then you started planning for it LOL. Fortunately it doesn't have to be that bad, hopefully the info I've accumulated on this site will help you get through it. Here are some things to start out thinking about and the reasons why earlier is almost always better.
A side note to keep in mind about getting married in Vegas; many brides and grooms experience backlash about Vegas, typically from snotty family members who try to lay the guilt on because they don't feel like paying the money to travel. You may even get rude comments about Vegas being a party atmosphere not suitable for weddings, mentions of Elvis, comparing your day to drive thru weddings, so on and so forth from uninformed people who know nothing about having a wedding in Vegas and everything that is possible. In any case, my personal opinion on the matter is anyone who says something rude like that deserves a commensurate response such as "You don't have to attend if you feel it is that much of an issue." Your wedding day is YOUR day, not anyone else's, so tell them to STFU if they don't like your plans.
Okay back on track. Before we get started, keep in mind that if you're on a budget, a weekday wedding can save you HUGE amounts of money because days other than Friday, Saturday and Sunday are far less common for weddings and wedding-related vendors are often idle on those days, so better to make a deal and have some work than sit around doing nothing. Additionally, much of my warnings about booking very early can be ignored for the same reason; it's often possible to book various vendors for weekday weddings even a month or two out. If you've settled on particular vendors though, always best to go ahead and lock them down to your date.
Step One (The B Word):
Step one is BUDGET. Do not try to plan anything else related to your wedding until you have a reasonably firm budget and stable plans on how you're going to fund that budget. Here's some budget-related rules of thumb:
If someone other than you and your fiance/fiancee are providing some or all of the money for your wedding, you do NOT have that money until it is in your hand. Believe me when I say that anything can happen between when a promise of money is made and vendor bills arrive; I've seen countless examples on TK of brides and grooms having to cancel parts of their wedding day, lose deposits or postpone the entire thing as a result of family budget contributions not coming through due to death, divorce, pregnancy, legal issues, layoffs, tax issues, real estate issues (down payments on new property, failure to sell property, special assessments from home owners associations, etc.), job bonuses not occurring as scheduled, so on and so forth. So please, do not plan an 'over the top' wedding when the 'over the top' portion of the budget is not money in your direct control. If you are relying on someone else for some or all of the money, my recommendation, unless you're willing to bet your wedding day on their financial status being so secure that nothing could ever happen, would be to approach them and say something along the lines of "Unfortunately all of our vendors are going to require 50% down payments, and since we cannot afford to pay for the expenses we're planning to incur if it were not for your generous gift, would it be possible for you to provide the gift now so we can make secure arrangements?" If you've got the money in hand, now it's safe to plan.
Before accepting budget assistance from family and friends, keep in mind that financial contributions are the #1 way relatives will try to impose their will on you on your wedding day, particularly with regard to invited guests. I can't tell you how many times I've seen brides on TK post threads complaining about "My mom insists on inviting 50 relatives I've never met, but my venue only holds 100. She's paying for our wedding so I don't know how to tell her no. What do I do?" The short answer is, you can either tell her no and risk losing your budgeted money, or do what she wants because she's paying. If that doesn't sound very attractive, it's because it's not, so unless you're sure this type of stuff won't come up, you should always take who the gift is coming from into consideration before accepting.
Take every possible thing you can into account before booking vendors. It's not uncommon to see people book a bunch of vendors that put their budget at 100% and then realize something they forgot. Here's my list of vendors and items my wife and I budgeted for:
Airfare to Vegas and for honeymoon
Bride's hair & makeup
Bridesmaids' dresses (if providing for them)
Dress preservation post-wedding
Florist (bouquet, boutonnieres, ceremony floral and reception centerpieces)
Gifts for host(s)/hostess(es) for any showers that are thrown for you
Invites (including postage and calligrapher)
Reception (venue, food & beverage, etc.)
Reception gifts for guests
Save the Dates
Tuxedos for groom and groomsmen (if renting/buying for them)
Wedding day catering for bride and groom's suites to cover lunch for bridesmaids, groomsmen and vendors (Hair & makeup, photog, videographer, day-of coordinators)
Wedding party hotel rooms (all bridesmaids and groomsmen)
Step Two/Three (Number of Guests):
I call it step "two/three" because steps two and three can be reversed depending on your personal priorities, budget and venue choice, or many times, they have to be combined into one evolving mathematical formula of guest count, venue options and budget restriction.
For example, let's say your priority is showing your guests the best possible time you can over inviting every possible person you know. In fact, you may even be willing to sacrifice some guests to achieve this with your budget. Well, that might mean you rent out the nicest restaurant in Vegas that your budget permits (first round of cuts) and it turns out the restaurant's private room is limited to 100 guests (second round of cuts); now you know how many guests you have to limit yourself to.
In contrast, lets say your priority is getting all of your friends and your extended family (cousins, aunts, uncles, family you haven't seen in ten years, etc.) to your wedding and you don't care as much what venue you choose as long as you show them a good time and feed them. Well, now you have to find a venue that fits the reception portion of your budget AND can hold the invited number of guests; that may require you to make some sacrifices on the venue you choose as not all may be able to accommodate your number of guests while also meeting your budget.
Step Two/Three (Vendors):
Now on to vendors and recommended booking times (for weekend Fri-Sun) weddings. Each category is linked to the corresponding section of this website with vendors related to that category:
Photography - one of the most critical vendors for your wedding day, and most important to book as early as possible. Other than your memories and your marriage certificate, the photographer will be providing what is likely the only real record of your wedding day for you and your loved ones to enjoy. Unfortunately, the pool of highly regarded wedding photographers in Las Vegas is surprisingly small, so this group of elites often book up incredibly early, more than a year in advance during the spring wedding season for weekend dates. It is not unheard of to find photographers booked even 18 months out from time to time, so that is my recommendation; book the photographer as early as reasonably possible; i.e. as soon as you have the date set in stone. My wife and I booked our photographer 14 months out.
Officiant - Fortunately officiants are not nearly as difficult to book in advance as some of the other types of vendors, however, if you're picky about how exactly you'd like your ceremony to be conducted, my recommendation would be to start looking around early, and lock them down for a specific date. Also, once you do secure someone, my recommendation would be to keep a semi-regular line of communication open with them just to ensure they remember they have you on their calendar because many officiants are not used to being booked way in advance as most just provide services to chapels that have them on contract, so you want to make sure they remember your date when one of their chapels comes calling asking them to work a certain day. Here's a more detailed article on how to find an officiant you like: http://www.vegasgroom.com/%28Tip%29-How-to-find-an-officiant-you-like_144.html
Ceremony Venue - I linked this section to my chapel section but don't think you have to get married in a chapel; this is Vegas after all. You can get married anywhere you can dream up; in fact, I have this (click) article on ceremony ideas based on theme, with everything from waterfalls to pirate ships. The nice thing about Vegas is you can hire an independent officiant who will come to wherever you want to get married, so there are really no limits. If you choose to get married in a resort chapel, those are generally safe to wait on until you're ready to decide on everything else, since resort chapels may force some of your decisions. They crank weddings through every 30 to 60 minutes and often have more than one chapel operating simultaneously, so they often have lots of availability. Keep in mind that more specialty ceremonies book up earlier; for example, Mandalay's sunset beach wedding obviously can only have one booking per day since there's only one sunset, so you'd want to book that as early as possible. Here are some ideas if you're trying to stick to a specific budget range:
$0 to $500 - the only way to pull this off, if you include the cost of the officiant and marriage license, will be either a civil ceremony (click) which will cost you $50, or hiring an officiant, transportation and having your ceremony at somewhere in Vegas you don't have to pay for, because license, officiant and transport for even yourselves and a few guests (including the mandatory witness) will rack up a few hundred dollars. Some options for this would be in front of the Bellagio falls, or on the patio behind them if you can catch it when it's not having an official Bellagio event. In front of the Eiffel Tower at Paris; I don't mention in because Paris offers official resort weddings there so if you try to get in in wedding attire they may have an issue since guests are expected to go up, tour for a bit, come down. In the Venetian gardens or in the Canal Shoppes. In the Caesars mall in front of the aquarium or water fountains. At Valley of Fire national park. Potentially at Neon Museum depending on day of week and the current admission fees. There are probably countless other places on the strip depending on your interests.
$500 to $2000 - now you're into the typical price range of resort chapels. Just keep in mind that if the resort is affiliated with Cashman Photography, and you would like to have a lot of pictures of your wedding, it may not be possible to meet this budget range at the resorts in question due to the offensive Cashman prices for things like prints or a CD of all the images (which can run into the thousands). This price point also opens up non-strip chapels, of which there are many, some nice, some not so much. Other ideas can be more unique such as renting a double decker bus to drive you and your guests up and down the strip while the officiant marries you. Or you can of course build out a 'chapel' area in whatever venue you're choosing for your reception. For example, my wife and I got married in the restaurant we had our reception in; we just had them reconfigure the room between ceremony and reception, and had our florist deliver some larger pieces to be used behind us at the area the ceremony was performed. It's also fairly popular for brides getting married in luxury suites to go ahead and have the ceremony in the suite too; then no need to transport guests to the reception venue since they're already there.
$2000+ - sky's the limit; if you can dream it up, it's probably possible.
Reception Venue - I didn't link this to anything because receptions vary too widely to categorize them. You could have it in a luxury suite at a strip resort, off-strip at an even nicer resort who will work harder for you and provide a better value, in a ballroom, in one of the numerous acclaimed restaurants in Vegas, on a patio overlooking water fountains, looking down on Vegas from anywhere from 50 stories to 105 stories (Stratosphere) up, etc. If you are planning to have it on a weekend night and in a popular restaurant, keep in mind that just like everything else in Vegas related to weddings, they do book up early. For example, it's not uncommon for Maggiano's to book nearly a year in advance for large weddings that require complete room buyouts.
Reception Food & Beverage (if applicable) - I linked this to the catering section because typically if you have to worry about food and beverage at all, you're probably planning an in-suite or private residence wedding where catering will be a factor as you'll be bringing in your own food source. These vendors are typically pretty flexible on dates as they should have enough staff to handle small to large parties, so I wouldn't be too concerned with booking them incredibly early like the others, but as always, if you're 100% sure on a particular vendor, better to have them locked down for your date.
Hair & Makeup - these vendors are similar to photographers in Vegas. There is a small group of highly regarded hair & makeup people/companies in Vegas and they tend to book up pretty early. This particular segment of vendors also tend to match or not match specific brides though, either through the work they've done, ideas they have for you specifically, pricing or just personality, so you may find less flexibility here on who you want compared to a photographer for example. I recommend booking hair & makeup as early as possible once you find someone you think would work well for you. From a day-of planning perspective, allow a lot of time on wedding day for hair & makeup, more than you might think, especially if you're also getting your bridesmaids taken care of.
Flights - booking airplane tickets is just like gambling, but with no real enjoyment. Southwest is often one of the cheapest options to Vegas and back if you're near a city served by them, but unfortunately they only book tickets six months out. If you have the luxury of knowing your date well in advance and no chance of it changing, you may want to look at pricing on some of the 'big name' airlines like Delta, American Airlines, United, etc. and see what you can get for booking that far out, as they all book flights way in advance. If the deal doesn't seem very good compared to Southwest's price at that time for a flight a few months out (just test random dates), the you can gamble on fuel prices staying as-is and wait for the six month mark and see how Southwest looks. Depending on your proximity to Vegas, there may also be no-name regional carriers you can book on for even less money than any of the big boys.
Sound like a bit of a nightmare dealing with all of this? Well, it is. If you find it a bit overwhelming and want to just take most of it off your hands, you may be interested in hiring a wedding coordinator who will handle a lot of this for you. I didn't as we began planning way in advance and had lots of time to research, review, compare notes, visit with in person in Vegas on scouting trips and then take a break from time to time as needed. What we did do though was hire a 'day-of' coordinator, Scheme Events in our case. They took care of all vendor communication and scheduling beginning a few days in advance of our wedding and had two staff on-site on wedding day to handle anything and everything that came up; nearly 12 hours straight, from forgotten paperwork back in my room to cracking the whip on vendors who were not where they were supposed to be. The day went flawlessly and we didn't have to deal with any of it; I highly recommend a 'day of' coordinator if you can fit it in your budget.