After saving your pennies for years and planning for months, you’re finally taking the genealogy trip of a lifetime. Maybe you’re going to the Family History Library or visiting your ancestral hamlet in Europe. Or perhaps it’s a cross-country jaunt to interview Grandaunt Edna and see old family homesteads along the way.
Wherever your search for your roots takes you, you don’t want to get stuck without the tools you need to accomplish your research goals and experience the place. Just what should you tote along? Don’t pack your bags without consulting our list of 21 essential supplies to help you survive — and thrive — on your next big genealogical adventure.
Before you pack: Plan. Whether you’re headed to a family reunion that was scheduled a year in advance or you spontaneously booked a last-minute flight to Ljubljana, you should think about what you’ll do when you get there and what you’d like to accomplish. A clear itinerary will help you maximize your precious time.
For example, for our trip to Slovakia last summer, my travel companions and I each wrote down what we wanted to do when we got there. We compared notes and came up with an itinerary that fit everything in, including visits with relatives and time for archive research. Build in some wiggle room — schedule at least a few hours of free time each day for rest, unexpected activities and emergencies, such as weather, illness or office closings. During our trip, flooding affected our hosts’ business and impacted our day 2 visit to one of my ancestral villages. At the last minute, one of my companions made contact with relatives, and we were able to squeeze in a visit with them before returning our car.
Set research goals, too. Developing research plans is a great idea, anyway — see an example at FamilyTreeMagazine.com — but outlining specific goals for the trip will help you focus. Make notes of what resources are available at your destination and how you’ll go about research. Get an overview of key resources for each state with Family Tree Magazine‘s State Research Guides and City Guides and the Passport to Europe CD.
If you’re traveling within the United States, you can pay for things during the trip just as you would normally at home. But if you like to pay cash, make sure your bank has ATMs at your destination so you can avoid withdrawal fees from other banks. (Some credit unions have no-fee reciprocity with other credit unions; call your branch to check.)
Bring along small bills and change for incidentals such as parking, shuttles, copying costs and snacks. It’s better to overestimate than underestimate — and if you’re frugal, you might have money left over for a future trip. For small trip expenses, I keep an envelope labeled “Genealogy Fund” in which I toss loose change and extra dollar bills throughout the year. It adds up fast.
You may want to consider buying a prepaid credit card such as Visa Travel Money or MasterCard Prepaid. Check with your local bank or credit union to see if it has any specials; AAA also offers pre-paid cards for members. A prepaid card helps you keep a check on how much you’re spending and is safer than carrying cash. I got one for my trip to Slovakia and had no problems using it.
If you plan to use your regular credit or debit card while traveling abroad, call your bank to alert them: A foreign transaction is often a red alert for credit companies trying to protect customers from fraud. Travelers checks incur unnecessary costs — it’s better to withdraw money from an ATM once you’re abroad. (If you worry about having change for the bus when you arrive at your foreign destination, AAA sells TipPaks of small bills and change in euros, pesos and pounds.) Rick Steves has good advice on getting cash abroad on his website.
Unless you have a steel trap for a brain, you’ll need to bring along your family tree information to refer to it as you research. If you travel by car you may have room to bring along bulky binders and folders, but if you’re flying, you’ll need to limit your stash.
No matter whether you prefer to work digitally or on paper, you should always have a pocket notebook, a pencil and a pen with you. (Recently I traveled to a genealogy conference and realized on the plane that, though I had several electronic gadgets, I had completely forgotten to pack a pen.)
If you work on paper, bring only copies of family charts, documents or photographs — carrying around your originals is asking for trouble — in clearly labeled folders. When you make copies or printouts while on the trip, print on both sides to save paper and cut down on bulk.
For those who like to work digitally, a netbook or laptop is essential. If you plan on doing a lot of typing, consider toting along a mouse and external keyboard for ease and speed.
You can save and edit Word files and Excel spreadsheets from any computer when you use Google Docs, which is free with a Google account. If you need to save other kinds of files to access on the go, such as GEDCOMs or large PDFs, consider using a backup service such as Dropbox or a portable USB flash drive (also called a thumb drive).
Thumb drives can hold a lot of material and cost less than $20. They’re especially handy if you don’t have a computer of your own but want to access your files on public terminals. RootsMagic users can take advantage of its RootsMagic-To-Go, which lets you run RootsMagic directly from your thumb drive. Family Tree Magazine Plus subscribers can get more information about accessing family trees while on the road at FamilyTreeMagazine.com.
Airline luggage restrictions can make packing for a long research trip tricky. Check with your airline to determine exact rules and current fees. Generally, you can bring a small carry-on bag plus one personal item, such as a purse, briefcase or laptop computer bag, on board for free. If you’ve got luggage to check, expect to pay a fee.
An item to consider is a travel vest or jacket with hidden pockets, such as those made by Scottevest, to store extra items (your cell phone, iPod, snacks and a notepad and pen, for instance). It’s like an extra, wearable carry-on, and you don’t get charged for it. (I’ve got two of these vests, and I love them.)
Gone are the days of the bulging neon fanny packs — try a sleek money belt instead. Choose one with multiple zippered pockets to keep your travel documents, tickets and money organized and safe under your clothes. Rick Steves’ lightweight silk model costs $19.95 at TravelSmith.com.
Trip Info and Travel Guides
Don’t leave home without printouts of your itinerary, boarding pass, car rental and hotel reservations; printed directions from Google Maps; and basic information about your destination. Consider picking up an AAA guidebook from your local office, or check out The Next Exit, available online and in book form. I also like to carry a copy of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven (Chronicle Books). If you’ve got an iPhone, check out Lonely Planet’s mobile city guides.
Get recommendations for restaurants at your destination on Yelp!. And don’t forget to gather information on the important genealogical hot spots you might want to visit — libraries, archives, courthouses, historical societies. Check their websites to take down the hours of operation and any notable policies or procedures. It may be worth calling ahead just in case the information on the website isn’t completely up-to-date.
Make sure to review your mobile phone plan and determine whether you might incur any extra data or roaming charges while on your trip. Consider changing your plan to get more minutes or data allowance so you don’t get shocked by a huge bill when you return.
Don’t have a cell phone? If you’ll be traveling alone, consider getting a prepaid phone you can use in case of emergency. You can usually buy one for less than $20, and you pay per minute of airtime or per day of usage.
If you have a smartphone, you may find these apps handy:
- Car Finder (99 cents): Take a picture of your car where you park it, and the phone’s GPS will help you find it again.
- Luggage Limits ($2.99): Look up requirements for any airline on your phone, or use LuggageLimits.com free.
- My TSA (free): Quickly access information and updates from the Transportation Security Administration.
Buying a satellite phone or international cell phone is pricey but may be worth it if you’ll be abroad for a long time or expect to make a lot of calls (check out Mobal). If you’ll have consistent web access abroad, Skype is a cheap alternative to a cell phone.
Mobile Internet Access
Bringing a laptop on your trip may not be as useful as you planned if it turns out there aren’t any open Wi-Fi networks to connect to. A personal wireless internet device such as Verizon’s MiFi mobile hotspot can save you from exorbitant fees at hotels and convention centers within the United States. But be forewarned: The price for a device like this can be high or include signing up for a service contract.
Another option is mobile broadband, offered by most cell phone companies. You may be able to use your cell phone as a modem — contact your provider for more information.
Map-savvy drivers can get along with a simple atlas, but if you’d get lost in your backyard, a Global Positioning System device will give you turn-by-turn directions. These days, a good GPS unit under $150 is easy to find; TomTom, Garmin and Magellan are reliable brands that offer maps for North America and Europe. GPS devices are powered by battery or by car charger. Most smartphones come with GPS-enabled map programs built in; TomTom, Garmin and Magellan also offer iPhone apps from $24.99 to $49.99.
Chargers and batteries
It’s a good idea to get out all your tech toys in advance and decide what’s truly essential to bring. Make sure they’re in working order and that you have all the necessary chargers, cords, adapters and batteries. Charge up your devices the night before you depart.
The PowerMat and Duracell MyGrid wirelessly charge multiple devices at once. You plug one of these flat charging mats into a wall outlet, then set the devices to be charged on top rather than using a separate cord for each item that has to be charged. (Note: Both kinds of mats require devices to have a special clip, case or battery cover in order to be charged.)
A battery-powered charger is another option if you forget your wall charger or can’t find a free outlet at the airport. These are available from iGo or from your local cell phone or electronics store.
If you’ve already got a digital camera, make sure its batteries are charged and you have a spare memory card or two. If you’re considering buying one, read more about picking a digital camera that’s right for you at FamilyTreeMagazine.com.
We offer a lot of advice for taking pictures in the March 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine. If the archives allows it, taking digital images of documents and images you find can be a really great way to avoid copier fees. Many digital cameras can also take pretty good video — that’s like two gadgets in one.
Digital Voice Recorder
Recording relatives at a family gathering is a fun way to preserve your memories. (It’s also a great way to get teenagers involved with the festivities.) Two good options are the Phillips LFH0612 Voice Tracer and the Olympus WS-600S Digital Voice Recorder. An MP3 player that has recording capabilities will also work. (Download the Microphone Pro app for your iPhone or iPad.)
If you’re going to encounter a lot of photographs during your trip, you should consider bringing along the Flip-Pal Mobile Scanner. A big upside of this scanner is that it doesn’t require any cords and runs on AA batteries. Read our full review of the Flip-Pal in the May 2011 Family Tree Magazine.
Compact Portable Printer
A portable printer comes in handy when you need boarding passes or directions ASAP. Compare at Amazon.com. If you’re staying at a hotel, check with the front desk to see if the hotel has a business center with a printer for guests.
Dual Voltage Heating Coil
For those days when you’re stranded with nary a Starbucks in sight, you can boil hot water in minutes with a heating coil. Keep tea bags, instant coffee or soup packets handy with a mug for instant pick-me-ups. This model, which includes an adapter for Continental European plugs, is $14.95 at Magellan’s website.
Portable Luggage Scale
A portable scale lets you weigh your bags before getting to the airport so you can avoid extra fees. Find them at your local discount store or at TravelSmith, which has digital and analog models.
Airport Lounge Membership
If you fly frequently, you’ve probably had your fill of uncomfortably long layovers. First class flyers get automatic access to private airport lounges, but now us coach-flying peasants can enjoy the comforts, too. Membership in programs such as United’s Red Carpet Club ($475 a year or $35 for a day pass) gets you access to Wi-Fi, showers, complementary drinks and snacks, and a quiet place to catch some shut-eye. Note that lounges are usually only available at major airports, so if your frequent flying only takes you from Grand Rapids, MI, to Tampa, FL, you won’t have any use for club membership. If you’re an infrequent flyer, consider buying a day pass — try LoungePass.com or your airline’s website.
Check your airline frequent flyer membership to see if you have any options for airport lounge access. Another option, sometimes offered by banks to credit card holders, is Priority Pass, which offers admission to 600 airport lounges around the world for a yearly subscription of $99 to $399 plus some usage fees.
Travel Evacuation Insurance
If you’re traveling to a country with less-than-stellar hospital facilities or you have health problems that might flare up during your trip, you may want to consider getting insurance. (Learn about your destination country’s medical facilities here.)
Your health insurance provider may offer international travel coverage, and AAA offers various plans for its members. Medjet Assist provides additional coverage for medical evacuation flights from anywhere in the world.
Better safe than sorry — here’s a list of first-aid items for a DIY kit:
- adhesive bandages of various sizes
- aloe gel
- antibacterial wipes
- antibiotic ointment
- cotton swabs
- hydrocortisone cream
- small bottle of hydrogen peroxide
- safety pins
- saline solution
- throat lozenges
Also bring along as much of your regular medication as you’ll need for the length of the trip plus a day or two, just in case. Keep the medicines in their original containers with prescription information, especially if you’re traveling abroad.
Wherever your family history takes you, a little planning — and the right gear — can make the trip more productive and give you more quality time with your ancestors.
Tip: Know before you go. Gather information about your destination and genealogical “hot spots” well in advance.
Tip: When you travel abroad, store a copy of your passport in a safe place separate from your original copy and register your trip with the US Department of State.
Tip: Get the scoop on an area’s research resources with Family Tree Magazine‘s State Research Guides and City Guides at Family Tree Shop.
With constantly rising prices for gas, lodging and airfare, even a short trip can end up costing hundreds of dollars. Try to set a figure of what you can afford to spend and how you will be paying for the trip. Hit the web to get an idea of what it’s going to cost you. Use online services such as FareCompare, Hipmunk and Yapta to compare airfares, or Kayak, which also lets you compare hotel rates and rental cars. For gas prices, go to GasBuddy.
When a gadget goes missing, it can be more than an unnerving inconvenience. With identity theft on the rise, having your personal data fall into someone else’s hands could literally cost you. Keep your data safe on the road with these tips from former police officer Daniel J. Burns.
- Take only the data you need. Use one flash drive just for travel, or a free site such as Dropbox or Google Docs that lets you access files — with a password — from anyplace you have a web connection.
- Back up files from your laptop on an external hard drive you keep at home. Online backup services such as Carbonite ($55 a year) keep copies in the cloud.
- Keep an inventory. Note the makes, models and serial numbers of all your electronic equipment and store the list in a safe place. Take a copy with you when you travel.
- Password protect your computer and, where warranted, individual files. Don’t use birthdays or other easily guessed passwords. Incorporate numbers and symbols to make them harder to crack. Change passwords routinely.
- Be careful when using public Wi-Fi networks. Keep antivirus software up to date. Don’t do any banking or exchange personal information on an unsecured network.
- Don’t leave electronics unattended, even in a locked hotel room. Use the hotel safe. In the event of theft, file a police report. They’ll ask for the make, model, serial number and description — your inventory helps here.
- Be aware. Keep a list of your banks’ customer service hotlines handy. If you suspect your personal information has been compromised, notify your service providers immediately. Work with them to change your PINs and passwords.
Since many cords and chargers look the same, I find labeling everything helps keep me organized. Using a label maker (about $20 at any store that sells office supplies) or masking tape, add a note on each item as to what gadget it goes with. Then put your name and phone number on another label on the back of each device. I like to keep all my cords in a clear plastic zipper bag for easy storage in my carry-on. I also create an inventory of all the items I’m taking along and snap a digital photo of everything for insurance purposes.
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