On the Road – Tips for Taking a Genealogy Road Trip

For many beginner genealogists, much of the research can be completed online. With billions of records between sites like Ancestry and FamilySearch, so much can be found online in the comfort of our home. Eventually, our journey is going to take us offline and into the library and archives. Only a small percent of the existing genealogical records are available online. This means that we are going to have to hit the road and take a genealogy road trip!

Why Take a Genealogy Road Trip?

Why do we need to get out on the road and take a genealogy road trip? Isn’t everything available online? I mean, there are census records, birth, marriage, and death records, newspapers, and much more available at our fingertips in the comfort of our own home. As much as we like to think that there is so much online, the reality is that a large portion of our discoveries are going to be made with records not available online. These records are housed on the shelves of the archive, the basement of the courthouse, or in the middle of nowhere in a cemetery! When we feel like we are at a dead end researching online, it’s time to get our hands and shoes dirty and head out into the field.

Planning the Trip

Setting out on a genealogy road trip journey is going to take some planning. As excited as we might be to hit the road and get going, we can’t just hop in the car and start driving. Here are some tips before you start your journey.

  1. Set Goals

Having a goal and a plan is the key to a successful research trip. You will want to have a goal in mind. What is the question that you are trying to answer? Let’s say that you are looking for the gravestone of your great grandmother, and you’ve hit a dead end with online research. Your goal is to travel to the local cemetery in the town that your great grandmother died in.

  1. Research Before You Go

Use the resources that are already available online. Review all of the known information about your ancestor. Look at where the close family members of your great grandmother are buried. Create a checklist with the online resources that you can check before heading out on the road. One of the most frustrating things to discover is going on a research trip only to find out that what you found is already online. Or, even worse, is traveling to an archive and discovering that the records you want are not even housed there. Exhaust all online resources before heading out on the road.

  1. Reach Out to Local Societies, Libraries, and Archives

Your best friend is going to be the online catalog of the libraries and archives that you want to visit. Be sure to check out their catalog and collection list to make sure that what you are looking for is there. Email or phone the archive or library ahead of time to make sure that they will be open the day you are planning to be there. It also will be beneficial to let them know what collections you are planning to look at. Sometimes they can be prepared for you and have the materials waiting for you when you arrive. This will save you valuable research time. Also be aware of the rules and restrictions of the library or archive. Some do not allow for photography, bags, pens, or other materials. Be sure to check out the website FAQ section.

  1. Create a Plan

Now that you know what you are looking for, it is imperative that you create a plan. The best thing to do is write your plan down. List step-by-step what you are going to look for. Be sure to include call numbers or links to the catalog entry in your research plan. With every catalog entry, write down what you are looking for.

  1. Pack Your Tools

You don’t want to arrive and not have your tools! Be sure to pack things like a USB flash drive, a laptop or tablet, and your research log. Be sure to print out the family group sheet of the family you are researching. Some archives only allow paper and pencil in the stacks, and you may not be able to bring your device to access your family tree. Don’t forget to bring your camera!

On the Trip

  1. Visiting Libraries and Archives

When you arrive at the archive, greet the person working at the desk and let them know what you are researching. The archivist or librarian will get you started and show you the layout of the facility. Show them your research plan, and they can get you started with pulling the materials that you want to look at.

  1. Cemeteries

Visiting a cemetery can be a fulfilling and enjoyable experience if you plan ahead. Be aware that some cemeteries may be on private property. Some states have laws that guarantee access to cemeteries on private property, but you will always want to get permission from the property owner. Most cemeteries on private property will have a sign with contact information of the owner. If you locate the gravesite of your ancestor, make sure to snap a photo. You should also upload the GPS coordinates to their Find-a-Grave memorial, especially if it is a large cemetery. This will make it easier for other people (and you!) to find the gravesite.

  1. Community

If you are at a location where your family lived, be sure to explore the community. Visit any museums or historical societies in the area. They may have a genealogy section, and there is usually someone there who is an expert on the history of the community. Have a chat with them and let them know who you are researching. They may know information that could help you in your research.

  1. Recording Your Findings

While you are doing your research, be sure to keep a research log. Detail what searches you are performing, even if you do not find what you are looking for. Be sure to write down exactly what you are looking for, what volume or collection you are looking at, and the call numbers of the items. You will want to do this so that you don’t come back in 5 years and look at the same item again. It will also help you to know that you did a reasonably exhaustive search.

  1. Be Flexible

Be prepared for the unexpected. Sometimes archives or libraries will close without notice, or an item you are looking for will be missing. It may storm on the day you wanted to go to the cemetery. Be sure to have a backup plan so that your trip is not entirely wasted if something unexpected happens.

After the Trip

  1. Organize Your Findings

When you get back home from your trip, review everything that you found. If you keep a paper research log, be sure to upload that information into your family tree. Take any pictures or documents and attach them to your tree and transcribe the information into the notes in your family tree software.

  1. Share

Although some of our family may not enjoy doing the actual research, they do enjoy following us along on the journey. Post your pictures and findings on social media. Share information about the people you met and the places you visited. Let your family know that you are working hard to research the family.

  1. Plan Your Next Steps

Sometimes we run out of time. Be sure to note if there are things you could not complete on the trip. This will be the foundation for your next research trip. You might think of other collections to search for a future research trip.


Researching our genealogy online is a fun and wonderful experience. Sometimes our greatest finds will be offline – in the libraries, archives, or cemeteries. The key to a successful research trip is a well thought out plan. Get to work today and plan your family history road trip!


1: Photo by julensan09 on Unsplash

2: Photo by uns_nstudio on Unsplash

3: Photo by Sandra Seitamaa on Unsplash