Photo: Chris Bethell
It’s 6.40AM on a grey Friday morning in early May. I’ve just downed a pint of lager while perched on a stool in Wetherspoons at Edinburgh airport. I’m now sweating slightly. In a film, this is the moment the protagonist turns to the camera and says: “You’re probably wondering how I got here.” The answer? In 45 minutes or so, I’ll be flying to Cork, Ireland, for my brother’s stag do. It’s my very first one, so as I watched one of his friends shovel a rubbery-looking Full English down his gullet, I was unsure what to expect. To cut a long story short: a good time was had by all.
When I was first asked to be best man, I had no idea that organising the stag would be such a big task. Stag and hen parties have evolved significantly since the days when they were one night out with silly t-shirts, penis straws and pink hats. Many are now planned over a whole weekend, with a packed schedule of activities and international travel. Best men and bridesmaids now need to be logistical experts, arranging everything from flights to fun, booze to food, taxis to beds. And as these parties have grown in length and complexity, the costs have rocketed.Research commissioned by Hotels.com in 2018 found that eight in ten people think the rise in cost is “staggering”, and one-third have had to make “financial sacrifices” to attend the stag and hen parties they’re invited on. How much are we talking? The research found that, for a trip abroad to places like Amsterdam, Barcelona and Prague, the average cost is an eye-watering £998. Stags and hens in the UK are cheaper, but still cost an average of £497 for a weekend all-in-all.Beyond the money spent on transport, accommodation and sustenance, much of the cash is going on activities. The survey found that stag “musts” include go-karting, casino trips and paintballing, while the ideal hen do preferences include spa treatments, champagne receptions and cocktail masterclasses. (Looks like the gender construct hasn’t been torn apart quite yet).
It seems that stags and hens want to do lots of fun things, which is fair enough if they’re giving up an entire weekend of their lives. But the problem is: everything costs money. I was keen to keep the costs down while planning my brother’s stag. It took a lot of spreadsheets, frantic WhatsApp messages and scouring the internet for discount codes, but we came in at around £450 each – about half the average price quoted above.Part of the reason I was so keen to keep costs down is that, because of the COVID backlog of weddings that were postponed in 2020 and 2021, this is a very expensive summer for a lot of people. Even just attending a wedding is steep: In the UK, the average cost is reportedly now around £650, and that’s before you factor in the hen or stag do. This summer, I’ve RSVP’d to so many wedding-adjacent events that I hardly have any money left over for anything else. (I’m gay, so I often get invited on stags and hen dos… Is this privilege or oppression? I’m still working that out.)Last weekend, I embarked on a hen party where I was greeted with caviar, smoked salmon blinis and bubbles on arrival, which was pretty chic. I was also was tasked with pulling together outfits for two incredibly heterosexual costume themes: The Great Gatsby and Coachella. All this was pricey enough before the cost-of-living crisis, but now it feels like an even bigger expense.
Sarah*, 29, went on a hen do in Barcelona last month. The bride was a friend from university and the maid-of-honour, who organised it all, was a childhood friend of the bride who Sarah didn’t know very well. Things started to get awkward when Sarah and some fellow uni friends started to think the upfront costs were too expensive for what they were getting.“It started off as a joke, in a separate group chat behind the maid-of-honour’s back, where we were being bitchy about how expensive it was,” she says. After wondering if they were becoming victims in a Netflix-style scammer story, one of her friends even attempted to add up the individual cost of things by googling the hotel and restaurants. “We were genuinely confused at the price,” she says. “Even now, we still don’t know where the final figure came from.”Of course, no one is forced to go on a hen or stag do. But if you’re good friends with someone, it feels awkward to say no. Among those I spoke to, it was extremely rare to ask for the price to come down for fear of looking cheap, rude or ruining the vibe. “No one wants to be that person,” Sarah says. Going on the modern stag or hen is like agreeing to go on an indulgent holiday without knowing anything about costs beforehand.Things can get even more awkward, though. When Anna* was invited to a hen do in London, where she lives, she was thrilled because it would hopefully keep the costs down. Unfortunately, it didn’t end up that way. “We ended up going out for afternoon tea, for some reason, then fancy cocktails and karaoke,” she recalls. “I honestly ended up spending more on this one-day hen do than I’ve done on others across a whole weekend.”
Then one of the bridesmaids let slip that this wasn’t even the real hen do: an elite smaller group were heading to Paris for a long weekend a month later. “So, basically,” Anna says, “I spent all this money and it wasn’t even the actual hen-do, it was the fake hen-do for people they didn’t want to invite to the real one!” Ouch.Stag and hen parties are most fun when there’s a mix of people – work friends, family and school friends – who bond and make an effort to get to know each other. But depending on their circumstances, these groups might have different amounts of disposable income, and one person’s bargain can be another person’s rip-off.Adam*, an English teacher, discovered this when he went on a school friend’s stag do in Copenhagen in April. “The best man and the groom both work in finance, and so did quite a few of the guys who went,” he explains. “I booked my own flights, and accommodation wasn’t too bad, but the bars and restaurants they chose ended up being a lot more expensive. I knew Copenhagen was expensive, but I probably spent close to a £1,000, which is more than the previous two stags I’d been on combined.”Is there any way around this financial awkwardness? On my brother’s stag, where I presumed there was a similar mix, I booked things that could be paid for months apart. This way, people could spread the upfront cost across several month’s pay if they needed. Judging from everyone I spoke to, people don’t generally regret spending money on stag and hen parties if they have a lot of fun – even the ones that are painfully overpriced.It might seem strange that millennials have embraced these events in such a big way, given we are constantly accused of shunning gendered traditions by boomers who think trans people are causing climate change. But stag and hen dos have an important function: they reintroduce old friends and fast-track strangers towards friendship, so that the wedding day is more fun for everyone. For now, it seems like that’s still worth paying for.@LouisStaples*All names were changed at the request of interviewees