First, the most important aspect of a research trip is good planning. Planning ahead as much as possible will help you make the best possible use of your time and money.
Begin by identifying your destination, your goals, and who will go with you. You may have to plan for the needs of children, elderly, or uninterested spouses. Will you travel to several cities or states, or focus in one area? Knowing this may help you decide whether to drive or fly. You may want to plan a trip to coincide with a genealogy conference or other special event. If you have a specific place to visit, it is a good idea to make sure it will be open when you go!
Perhaps you have several destinations that you want to visit someday. How do you decide where to go first if your time and budget are limited? It depends on your priorities. Is there an elderly relative or cousin that you want to visit to interview as soon as possible? Is there a particular line on your pedigree that you haven't been able to get much information about? Are there records that haven't been microfilmed that you need to access? If you have children with you, are there places that will entertain them while you get some research done?
Once you decide what your goals are, get maps of the states and/or cities where you will travel. If you're not familiar with genealogical repositories in that area, look for state-specific research guides at your local library or online. Some common destinations include the state archives, state vital records departments, state historical societies, county courthouses, local libraries (municipal or college), historical societies, cemeteries, and museums. Use your map to locate the places and see how far apart they are, and decide which could be combined into one day's work. It is fairly easy to go to one repository in the morning, then take a lunch break and drive to the second repository for the afternoon. The hours of operation may help you decide where to go first—which one opens first or stays open later. I like to make a tentative schedule so I can try to fit everything in, but also anticipate changes based on weather, travel delays, or (much better) a gold mine of information!!
If you will be gone over a weekend, many government offices will be closed. However, local libraries and cemeteries will probably be open. You may want to schedule visits to relatives on a weekend, but make sure that facilities are available to copy any documents or photographs if needed. You can also plan to use the weekend to take pictures of houses, churches, and other historical landmarks, to organize and plan the next week, and to drive longer distances.
The internet is a great resource for planning. Most libraries, historical societies, and archives have websites where you can get information about their hours, fees, and research policies. Some may have online catalogs or descriptions of their collections. If you need to access something that is normally in storage, you can try to call ahead to have it ready for you. Some smaller libraries or courthouses may have only one person with expertise in genealogical records, so it might be a good idea to plan your visit when he or she is available to assist you.
Planning can help you avoid disappointment. On my trip, we planned to visit a historical museum that had recently moved to a new, larger location. Although it was open, its collection of photographs (including the only one of my great-grandfather that I know to exist) was not accessible. Four years later, I'm still waiting to get a copy!
The final aspect of planning a research trip is to do as much research and organization as possible before you go. If you can look up census records at home, your time can be spent doing something else on location. If you have done a lot of previous research, make sure it's all entered into your database and analyzed while you're planning your trip. As you review the information you can make notes of ideas for further research, places to visit, and records to search for.
For me, half the fun of a trip is in the planning! But for others who like to be spontaneous, planning may seem like a chore. But the more organized you are before you leave, the more productive and fun your trip will be!
NOTE: Research outlines are available through the Family History Library in Salt Lake.