Genealogy 101: Planning an International Research Trip

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega gives planning and travel trips for your next international research trip. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

You’ve made the decision. You are going to take the plunge and go walk in the footsteps of your ancestors in the country they called home. Great! That kind of decision can be exciting and scary, especially if you’ve never traveled outside of your home country or you’ve never undertaken a multi-day genealogy research trip. But there’s nothing to fear; now’s the time to plan, and below are some ideas to help you have a successful trip.

Photo: Venice, Italy
Photo: Venice, Italy. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

 It’s like a Local Trip, Just Longer

International travel can be overwhelming, especially if you’ve never ventured farther than the United States. Airport hassles, uncomfortably long flights, and feeling disoriented in an unfamiliar city (especially if you don’t speak the language) can all be par for the course. But don’t let that stop you for a second.

I highly recommend reading as much as you can about your destination before you leave home. Follow tour guides and travelers on social media websites (I love Sarah Murdoch, a Rick Steves-like tour guide and the blogger behind Adventures with Sarah, whose whole philosophy is to pack less/enjoy more when you travel).

Before you buy your plane tickets, take some time at your local book store and pick up guides and travel writings by those who travel to that country often or live there. These books help you understand the culture and become more familiar with the country. For your research, consider corresponding with a genealogist or genealogy society in the area. Get their recommendations. You might even want to consider hiring someone local to go with you to nearby repositories (especially if you don’t speak the language).

Photo: Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, Florence, Italy
Photo: Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, Florence, Italy. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.


Packing is a major concern on a long trip. What do you take? And what about all of the things you may pick up along the way?

Search the Internet and you will find videos, articles, and even packing lists for trips. I subscribe to the idea that less is more when traveling, so even when I’ve traveled internationally for more than a week, I’ve taken only a carry-on suitcase. Yes, that’s right. I didn’t check my suitcase or bring a suitcase that is too heavy or big. How do I do that? I use packing cubes and roll my clothes so they take the least amount of space. I also plan on using some clothing items, like jeans, more than once. One of the best pieces of advice I heard about packing is to lay out everything and then ask yourself if it’s all necessary. You might find when you are coming home that you packed items you never used.

Why is packing and the size of your suitcase so important? Depending on where you are traveling, you may experience cobblestone streets, unpaved roads, and stairs… lots of stairs. If I can’t easily manage my suitcase myself when I’m tired and in less than ideal conditions, I’m going to have a negative experience that focuses more on my discomfort and less on the wonders of where I am traveling.

On the way home, I always have space in my suitcase to bring home items I pick up along the way. I am able to do this by adhering to practices as I travel. I leave all my small personal care items behind (shampoo, hairspray, toothpaste, etc.) at the last hotel I stay in and I bring clothes that I’m ready to give away.* So I have been known to leave behind blouses and pants that I’m no longer wanting. You could also bring clothes you buy inexpensively at a second-hand shop. My last trip to Italy included bringing home several very large cookbooks (in excess of 1,000 pages) which fit quite well in my suitcase because I had left behind unwanted clothing.

I do recommend that you pack items that you will be grateful for when the unexpected happens. Consider what illnesses could happen on a trip and be sure to bring medicines for headaches and stomach ailments at the very least. They can be lifesavers when traveling.

Now, what about items you need for research? Consider what you really need. There’s probably quite a bit that you would like to have with you, but concentrate on what you really need. For example, could you do your research with a mobile device and leave the laptop computer at home? Much of what you need could probably be accessed via an app or by emailing the information to yourself. Could you use online programs or apps such as Google Docs for access to word processing and spreadsheets? Instead of making paper copies at a repository, could you use your mobile device or a camera (consult the repository’s website for rules first)? If paper copies are necessary, consider bringing a large envelope with you and mailing the copies home.


Think about your schedule before you leave your house. How many days do you have, not counting travel? If you’re attending a conference like RootsTech London (24-26 October), what days/times do you need to be at the conference? What days/hours are the libraries or archives you need to research at open? Did you call or email first to make sure they will be open and have what you need? Don’t make the mistake of not contacting those repositories before you leave (consider emailing at least two weeks before). There’s nothing worse than traveling thousands of miles to find out a repository is closed for a holiday you’ve never heard of.

Keep in mind that if you’re traveling internationally, chances are the first day you arrive might be hard. If you’re like me and can’t sleep on a plane, you might not have had any decent sleep in over 24 hours. So, you might not be at your most alert and productive. Keep that in mind and build in time for the unexpected – like extreme fatigue, illness, or even just feeling overwhelmed.

But most of all, be flexible. Sometimes things don’t happen like we want or planned. When you travel, you have to just go with the flow and know that you probably won’t be able to see or do everything. Because of this I always have my top two activities I must do in each place I go. If I get to do anything beyond those top two activities, then that’s even better.

Bon Voyage!

Traveling to an ancestor’s homeland is exciting. You will learn new things that you just can’t at home behind the computer. But planning and learning about your destination before your departure is critical (and don’t forget your passport).


* This is not my original idea, so I want to give credit to genealogy blogger Sue Petersen.

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