Packing for an overseas research trip?

A featured story this week on the Australian Genealogists’ Daily was one by the eminent Thomas MacEntee writing about “what to pack for a research trip”. It was a great summary of what you mustn’t forget on such a trip but was mostly focused on a domestic journey in one’s own country.

Image from Office Clipart
Image from Office Clipart

I woke up this morning adding items to the list based on my overseas research experiences, which are slightly different from domestic trips, so thought I’d provide my additions and comments.

Before even doing the packing, your most important travel addition is the person going with you.  They need to be:

  • tolerant (ready to listen to research ramblings not to mention having you “waste” a goodly proportion of your holiday on family research),
  • self-sufficient (enjoy toddling off to do their own thing while you’re in archives and libraries),
  • supportive (happily hunt through cemeteries for the names required)
  • have strong muscles to help you with the books you’ll buy and the weight of all that technology <smile>
  • patience by the bucket load.

Now to the actual packing.


Power adapters and power board: available in luggage shops here, these are required for the overseas countries you’ll be visiting. Thomas’s suggestion of a power board is a great one as this enables you to plug in a number of techie things simultaneously yet only use the one power point and adapter. I’ve never taken one before but it’s now on my list so we don’t have to do the musical charger dance.

Laptop and charger: I wouldn’t even contemplate going without my (lightweight) laptop if I’m planning serious research.

External drive (carried separately) so you have a backup of everything you already have, and can backup new information as you go. (I also email it to myself)

Memory stick: I carry a blank memory stick so I can save to it in libraries. Don’t forget to copy/email etc the docs asap as these are so easy to accidentally leave somewhere.

Tablet and charger: a tablet + keyboard might be a substitute for the laptop if weight is an issue but I use mine for reading on long haul flights and trips. You can also keep backups of key documents in your reader in PDF form, as well as photos. A bonus is that the battery is more long-lasting.

Camera + charger: yes, you could use your smart phone but generally you’ll get better quality with your camera especially if you need to enlarge the image. So much cheaper, and quicker, than photocopying archive documents or extracts of books.

Notebook and pencil: I loathe normal pencils so I always carry my own propelling (aka mechanical) pencil plus a notebook which has all my contact details in the front including an annotation that I will pay for postage if it’s lost/misplaced. I’m still a bit of a belt and braces kind of girl.  Carry it all in a transparent folder so you don’t lose things and it’s easy to see what you’ve got. Or colour-code your folders for family history vs flight and hotel bookings.

Dictaphone or recorder and charger, on smart phone: handy to record comments when you’re rushing from pillar to post, or on the road.

Mobile phone/smart phone and charger: beware taking your own SIM card overseas unless you want monstrous global roaming costs. I leave mine with family and buy a local one as soon as I arrive. You can usually buy them at the airport. Make sure you get one with the option of international SMSs and data downloads. Don’t forget to check that you have your critical contacts saved to your phone’s memory not the SIM card you’ve left behind. Add your ICE contact at home to your new SIM.

Don’t forget your travelling partner needs a phone too, so you can let them know when you’re having a break or have emerged from your research cocoon.

Internet connections: As in Australia, the more remote the place the greater the possibility you won’t get reception, so beware keeping everything in Dropbox and assuming you’ll always be able to access your information. Was I unable to access the internet in rural Argyll last time because of the distance, or because my previous “smart” phone wasn’t as distance-receptive?

Variable internet reception could play havoc with your intention to use online storage.

Emails: rationalise your emails before you leave. You really don’t want to be wasting your precious data download on all the information emails you get, or even on your blogging mates’ blogs. You can sign up again once you get home or change it to a different email which you’ll only access when you get home. Also have more than one email: I remember being caught at the Clare Library once when a particular email server wasn’t permitted access, though I can’t remember which it was, maybe bigpond.

Documents and photos: I’m assuming you’ll have copies of all the relevant family history paperwork you’re going to need on the laptop/tablet.

GPS: Decide if you want to download overseas maps to your own, or buy one once you land at the other end, which may be cheaper as it will come loaded with local maps.

Scanner: decide if you want to take your Flip-Pal with you when you’re travelling overseas. Perhaps most useful if you’re visiting relatives who may have photos. (Don’t forget to take some of your own ancestral photos of people and places to share with them).


Maps: Yes the GPS is great, but I do so like to have a backup hard copy.  I’ve often bought small city directories which later prove invaluable for family history.

Topographical maps: If I don’t have these for my family’s region/place, I make sure I get one as soon as I can, preferably an older version. They’re invaluable to pinpoint family places and tiny villages and settlements (or look for them via online maps and download to your computer/phone/tablet)

Directions:  I’ll often print out the map and public transport instructions to get to the archives/library as I find it easier to follow, and then throw them out after the visit.

Pre-book: be like the professionals and if you can locate a document via the online catalogue, email to ask if you can pre-book it. Some need to be brought in from storage, and that can take a day or two: not much use if you’re time-limited.

If you’re travelling at peak periods some archives can be so busy that you need to pre-book your research place.

Timing: As Thomas said, check before you go that there are no closures in place while you’re visiting. Check when the repositories open and close, then use an online public transport guide to plan on getting there early.

Knowing the opening times will enable you to maximise your research time, moving from one repository to another as the day progresses. Keeping track of evening hours can be particularly helpful (you don’t need dinner do you?!)

Keep an eye on when copying ceases for the day: you don’t want to miss out on that inevitably-last-minute find just because they’ve just announced copying closure.

Allow more time than you think you’ll need!

Snack food: Not every library or archive has snack dispensers or a canteen. Besides which you may not want to take time out, so a quick muesli bar or piece of fruit can be handy. On the other hand, smaller archives may close over lunch (of course just as you’ve found something important!), but just roll with it. Venture into the fresh air, take a walk, or enjoy a pleasant lunch while that research percolates through your mind. Or, heaven forfend, chill out with your travelling partner.

Money: change for lockers, photocopying, or food. Or maybe the purchase of a local history book.

Passport photo: Some overseas archives require you to have a passport photo with your application so take a spare sheet of photos with you to save time.

Application forms: print the archives’ application form off before you go and take it with you already completed….every minute counts.

Lanyard with clear pocket attached: handy to keep your change and your archives ID so you’re not carrying it around or leaving it on the desk.

Glasses and magnifying glass: If you need reading glasses you’ll obviously take these. Decide if you feel the need for your own magnifying glass. Most repositories will have one you can borrow.


Jetlag: Not to be underestimated, but my cure is to get out in the day for as long as possible ie until you are ready to fall over from tiredness.

What better way than to walk/travel to the archives? Don’t get over-optimistic, you’re probably not going to be at your best for research, but you will be able to do a reconnaisance of the place, sort out your ID card and the like. The last time I was in Dublin, within hours of landing, we toddled off to the Archives -and ran straight into a professional researcher I knew from Brisbane. It’s a small world!

Itinerary: Keep a printed list of where you’re going and which archives you hope to visit, especially if you’ve pre-booked. Not to mention your flights, hotels etc.

Database: I keep my contacts in a database on my laptop so I have all the details for family and friends with me.

“Business” cards with your name, address, email, blogs etc written on them. I get mine cheaply from Vistaprint. You can also get magnetised ones which might be handy for relatives.

Bubble wrap: I always carry some for those precious items I come across. Yes you can buy it overseas, but finding where takes time.

Certified copies of your personal documents (passport, birth and marriage certificates).  Trust me, you really don’t need to spend the time it takes to yo-yo between embassies and consulates to get a replacement passport and accompanying visas. I speak from an experience 40 years ago when Mr Cassmob had his stolen.

Determination, enthusiasm, persistence and politeness: sometimes you have to go beyond your comfort zone to pursue your research leads. You may be surprised to discover that others are not always as enthused by family history as you are.

Research checklist: have a running file of the things you’re going to follow up and where so you don’t lose sight of what you want to find. Take it in hard copy so you can tick it off, as well as electronically.

Homework: Don’t forget to review your notes and your research plan the night before you head off to the archives. What better way to spend those tedious hours in flight as well?

Gifts: Thomas’s idea of gifts is a great one. Geniaus has used Aussie pins, I’ve done small cross-stitch in Aussie patterns, taken calendars, or sent them afterwards with a thank-you note. Both very well received. Tailor your gift to your potential recipients.


This is the optional extra <smile>

Learn to pack light and mix-and-match. After all, what’s more important? The clothes or the research stuff? No contest!

But don’t forget your boots for tramping through cemeteries in rain/snow/ice/mud.

You do need one spare pair of trousers – you never know when you’ll get a rip climbing over an Irish cemetery fence, as I did once. It was nigh-impossible to find a new pair for my tall Aussie frame in Ireland.


Cruising is a whole other ball game in overseas genealogy research and I defer to the experts on this. Geniaus, among others, has written posts about this, so search the blog sites for their pearls of wisdom.


So there you have it, the things I’ve learned from my mistakes and omissions during many overseas trips. Remember you will always find something pivotal at the last possible minute, it will always take longer to get through the documents you do find, or you may get completely absorbed in an unexpected discovery.

Enjoy the ride and don’t forget to allow time to just enjoy the place where your rellies lived, and hang out with your travelling partner. Hmmm, then again, while it was a lovely sunny day in the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens and we had a fine time, perhaps I should have revisited Leith for some blue-sky photos <wink>.

You’ll meet people and see places which take you well beyond the tourist trails. You’ll be amazed by people’s generosity and take away some truly special memories.

What are your tips/tricks or advice for overseas research trips? Do share so we can all benefit. 

THANKS TO THOMAS MacENTEE for the inspiration to put this list together!


14 thoughts on “Packing for an overseas research trip?

  1. Thank you! Very timely as I’m off to the UK in September on a (mainly) research trip. Now I just have to tell friends and family there I have another agenda!


      1. Yes; am hoping they get bored with me quickly. Although I do have a new nephew who is of course an exception to this! 🙂


    1. I hope they’re helpful Aillin and as Jill rightly observes you could do with a packhorse, or an old-style carrier, to cart all the stuff. And that’s without buying up on books while away.


  2. We are heading off to Wiltshire with family from Canada & Aus to visit all the places where our ancestors lived. I’ve done a spreadsheet for each village showing who lived there, what they were doing, how they are related, date etc & am hoping that it helps us really get the feel for their lives. Not so much about research. Great article. Lots of good ideas. Cousins,still living in Swindon which is where the families moved to for work at Great Western Railway about 1870, are organising the big family gathering. Can’t wait.


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