A friend asked on Facebook about the best strategy for doing genealogy journeys to the
United Kingdom – one trip or more? My response was definitely more than one to allow for learning and evaluating what one finds. It’s also made me think in greater depth about what I’ve learned over multiple trips to pursue my family history – as well as general travel. What worked, what maybe didn’t etc. Thanks to my friend Sharon who provoked this thought process.
What credentials do I have to speak on this topic? Well, I was a late starter to travel only commencing in my 20s but I’ve made up for it since. I’ve done multiple research trips, solo or with my other half. I’ve visited archives, libraries, places and cemeteries across the relevant states of Australia (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania), Ireland, England, Scotland and Germany (Bavaria).
So here are my tips, for what they’re worth. They will change with time because, as we know, nothing stays constant in the digital modern world.
When you live Down Under, unless you’re travelling within Oz, your first step is flights. Unlike our ancestors we no longer have to spend months at sea, though I have often reflected that perhaps our tolerance for long-distance travel was formed by their endurance on emigration.
We only ever fly economy. As much as turning left instead of right appeals once on board, I think of what else we can do with the dollars, or points, and reconcile myself to a tedious 24+ hours on the journey with minimal sleep (if I’m lucky). And at nearly 6 feet tall and with the airlines’ decreasing seat pitch, it’s certainly tedious, but like childbirth it’s soon enough forgotten. If you arrive in the early hours of daylight, keep going, get out in the sun and do something – I’ve found this the best way to combat jetlag.
Compared to the flight costs, the expense on the ground is what adds up: the accommodation, hire car, meals, admissions etc. It’s the exchange rate that makes the difference – we’ve indulged when it’s been in our favour, and been “cheap Charlies” when it hasn’t. At least we’ve balanced cheap accommodation on some nights with more comfortable accommodation on others. I don’t really subscribe to the theory that hotels are only a place to lay your head….for me it’s part of the experience. Travelodges and the like are fine when you’re in transit, being just off the motorways, but other times I want to stay in something like an oast house in Kent.
Take certified copies of your passport, certificates, insurance documents, and spare passport photos in case of theft.
Apart from my thoughts above, one thing I consider is where is best to stay when I’m doing research in places that are less travelled. I’ve learned that it’s wise to stay at least one night in the area so you can avail yourself of local knowledge and maybe engender some curiosity about you – which might lead to more family information. Sadly, my ancestors’ inn in Dorfprozelten has been demolished so we had to stay in another one that dates from a similar time.
If you’ve made connections with cousins who still live nearby it gives you a chance to have a meal or a drink.
When to go?
We have traditionally travelled off season – between October (the earliest) and May (the latest). This reduces cost and the impact of other tourists, but has to be balanced against weather, and whether the places you want to visit are accessible, or the research centres are closed for the season.
Internal travel at destination
On our first trips overseas we used train travel, but ever since we’ve used hire cars to get around, and frankly I don’t see how else you could do it, unless your ancestors came from one of the great urban areas like London or Glasgow. I have membership with various hire car companies which makes it both cheaper and easier when travelling. It also minimises the hassle if you have a family emergency at home and need to change your travel plans.
If you’re in a city, explore what local transport cards area available for bus, train or ferry. Apply before you leave home if possible.
Now to the tough stuff. You absolutely MUST do your homework before you leave. Don’t head off overseas (or anywhere really) thinking that information will magically appear once you’re on the ground. Once it would have been a case of using fiche or microfilm but now we have the digitised resources online, some original images, some derivative or indexes. Pretty much all libraries and archives have their catalogues online as well as their opening hours, guides, and other relevant information.
In particular, check:
- Do you need a photo image? I didn’t when I went to the Scottish Record Office years ago and wasted time finding a photo shop to take a passport image. Now I always travel with spares (good “insurance” too if your documents are stolen).
- What hours are they open and what days? Do they have lunch breaks? We got caught in Argyll because the archives took a lunch break….but I did find a nice pair of earrings as well as getting some food 😉
- They’re not closing for public holidays etc etc.
- Maybe there’s a genealogy conference you can tie into your visit – we were lucky when visiting Glasgow that there was a publicity event happening for genealogy and local history.
- Lots of my genimates are signing up for RootsTech London or The Genealogy Show but I’ve decided against (so far!). I’ve been to London before and done some research so it’s not highest on my list right now though I’d love to reconnect with my genimates who are going. I look at the content of what’s on offer and what else has been on my travel bucket list before I make my decision. You can see my conference Pros and Cons
Archives and Reference Libraries
I don’t know about you, but I always find it takes me time to settle into an archive or reference library. Yes, they have guides online these days, and useful tips and hints, which must be added to the pre-trip preparation. However, being on the ground still makes a difference.
Pre-trip I go through the catalogues and decide what I want to look at. Usually I will print off the references I want to follow up. Yes, I also save them as a running document, but I personally find it helpful to have the printed information as well. Once I’m finished there, the pre-trip paperwork goes in the bin. But not my discoveries of course! Make sure you save them online as you go so there’s no risk of loss.
- Do you need to pre-book your research table? This can be especially relevant if it’s peak season.
- Do you need to order in documents/records which are held off-site? Omitting this can play havoc with your plans.
- How are you going to get to the repository? How often is public transport? Do you have the application completed for a reader’s ticket? Is there an “admission” fee? Check their website. It’s so much easier now with information online.
- You can bet your bottom dollar that the most relevant piece of information will be found in the last five minutes or just as the collections are being closed for the day. Sigh.
- Balance your prepared list with serendipity. I didn’t expect to be so enthralled by the Kirk Session records in Edinburgh but they really are a gold mine.
- Use online records even if they cost you money. Personally, now it’s possible, I much prefer to spend my money on ScotlandsPeople at home where I can compare my other information and evaluate what I’ve found. This means when I’m on site I can focus on records that are only available offline.
- Don’t forget the local archives – on my next Scottish trip I need to spend time at the Edinburgh City Archives. If only there was more time.
Choose a supportive, independent travel partner
I’d be lost without Mr Cassmob who invariably finds the very grave I want, no matter how we quadrant the cemetery. He’s also independent and is happy toddling off to a museum while I bury my nose in an archive. You can meet up for lunch, or spend the morning in a gallery and the afternoon each doing your own thing. He’s also good at looking like he cares what I’ve found that day, or pondering my plan for the next. <smile>
On the other hand, you do need to spend some time together since that’s part of why you’ve done this trip. Hmmm, was it a good choice to visit the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh on a gorgeously sunny day? That or a rare photo of Leith in the sunshine? The jury’s still out on that one.
On the other hand, he drove me from one sign to the other at North Shields while I looked like a drowned rat taking photos at each.
Decide which one of you is the better navigator or driver? Work to your skills…makes for a more harmonious trip <smile>.
Allow for a buffer in your schedule. This is definitely something I’ve learned over time and genea-journeys. Serendipity comes from the most bizarre sources – a friendly cat, or a helpful priest. Both have given me information I’d never have found elsewhere. It makes you feel like you’re in your own version of Who Do You Think You Are (WDYTYA). A chance enquiry of a bloke mowing his lawn led us to great information about Mr Cassmob’s Retford ancestors, and a delightful experience after the Sunday church service. You get such great personal memories and engaging conversations when serendipity enters your travel agenda.
Buffer days in your itinerary also help -either to give you down time or in case serendipity creates a great opportunity.
I may touch on these in another post but in the meantime you can visit these prior posts here, here, here and here. Things to consider are: phones in remote places (yes, there still are some), wifi, what documents/records to take, how to take them etc.
My key tips:
- Buy topographical maps of your families’ areas. They are a potential goldmine! See if you can buy them online before you leave, or search them out at a good bookshop or large newsagent. Taking mine is a priority for me.
- Keep your most important documents online at Evernote, or Dropbox or Google Drive or whatever. You’ll have them wherever you are – so long as you have wifi and most accommodation now provides that at least. With an Evernote professional subscription you can also choose to make some documents available offline eg travel papers, insurance, family history. I haven’t caught up with what’s happening with Evernote but I’ll be bitterly disappointed if this facility ceases to exist.
- Skype (or Facetime): get yourself set up before you leave so you can ring home cheaply. Skype lets you set up a phone number local to home so people can ring you without great expense. I also add some credit so I can ring via Skype if I need to.
- Download apps relevant to the area you’re visiting.
- Look up the location and hours of family history societies for your family’s area. Remember they may have indexed information that’s not readily available elsewhere.
- Talk to those who’ve been to your family places before, if possible. Get their advice and tips.
Whatever you do, enjoy the trip, seeing your families’ places, and experiencing the country or region where they lived.
Do you have comments or tips to add?
Do check out David’s wise words in the comments about thinking why you’re going and what you want to achieve. Thanks David.
9 thoughts on “Genea-journeying – my tips”
Fabulous tips Pauleen, thanks for sharing.
You’re welcome Alona.
I suppose that the only thing I would add is to know what you are trying to achieve before you go. If it is basic data, as you have often pointed out, a lot is available online and you need to know exactly what you are looking for before you arrive in order to ask the right questions. For me, perhaps the most important thing about travelling to a place is not so much gathering data but experiencing the place where the ancestors came from, the weather, the history, the people with their accents (or language) and oddities, as well as their stories. For me the underlying question is always “why did they leave?” and being there sometimes helps with an understanding of that. If your goal is to write stories, I think that you need to know what story you want to write, and spend as much time as possible in the place where the story takes place. It might mean a week in an AirBNB on the wild west coast of Ireland, or in the Scottish Highlands, as well as good pair of walking boots, and the willingness to ask questions of whoever you might meet on your wanderings. It will always mean walking in the rain, and enjoying a pint in the local pub at the end of the day. It is all about getting the feeling of a place.
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Excellent advice David. Thanks for adding those comments. Asking questions of people on the ground is something I am not good at yet I’ve had a lot of help when I do.
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What I forgot to say was, “excellent article!” I always get so much out of all your blogs. Thanks for taking the time.
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From the perspective of an archivist at a county record office in the UK, this is excellent advice. It is frustrating for us – as well as for the researcher – when someone turns up unexpectedly at a time when we don’t have the resources or space to help, or without any real idea of what they are looking for. Preparing well in advance allows us to provide you with a much better service. It is also worth pointing out that most UK archives have had their funding reduced and as a result have had to cut both staff and opening hours. This makes it even more important to check in advance that they will be open when you plan to visit.
Fantastic article. I try to leave time for walking the streets, parks, sites, churches, etc around ancestors homes. I love the idea that I might be walking in their foot steps. At Archives and libraries I always check the catalogue at the archive/ library. So many have the odd collection that is not expected and not always listed online. Small local private or community museums will have maps, interesting trinkets and loads more that take you closer to your ancestors lives.
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Good tips Fran, thanks.
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