Before you go, check out the available repositories in the area. If they have web pages, check the hours they are open; if not then call for the information. Many local genealogical and historical society libraries depend on volunteer staff and are only open one or two days per week. If the site has an online library catalog, make a list of books and films you need to see. Take plenty of paper, pencils and pens (some places only allow pencils), charts and forms, and your camera and film.
Why go to all of the hassle of visiting a place when you can access their records on line, hire someone to do it for you, or rent the film? You might just come across a valuable bit of information that you would not have otherwise. Besides, handling the records yourself is part of the thrill!
A trip to the courthouse might turn up a 190 year-old marriage bond tucked away in a file drawer. Being able to carefully remove, unfold, and view that original piece of family history and making a copy beats getting a copy in the mail. You dig through the death registrations for your great-great-grandmother without success. Instead, you find one for your great-great-grandmother's brother. It has the maiden name of their mother! Several years before you had sent for a batch of death certificates and the health department could not find two of them. A search of the city death records turns up the missing dates! You might even uncover a deed or two that were recorded under a misspelling of the surname.
At the local historical society you flip through the papers in a "miscellaneous file" and find the unrecorded will of a brother to your 4th great-grandfather. The will names his three children that had not been recorded elsewhere and a sister. Accompanying the will is an affidavit from the man who had been entrusted with the safekeeping of the will. Several pieces of misinformation from previous research are suddenly made clear.
The public library has a copy of your ancestor's obituary. Copy in hand, you head for the county health department and the clerk takes the time to type out a copy of the death certificate while you wait. At another library you find a book containing cemetery inscriptions. The librarian, not sure of the cemetery location, takes the time to call her husband at work to get the directions for you.
The library also has a few city directories from the years your ancestor lived in the community. With the addresses and a local map, you are able to pinpoint where your ancestors house was located. If it was in a restored historic district, the original house may still be standing.
While you are in town you have the chance to visit the Town Founders Monument and see the names of two or three immigrant ancestors engraved on the obelisk. A trip to the old church cemeteries gives you a chance to view the headstones of your ancestors' graves.
You might have an ancestor buried in a small private graveyard that requires maneuvering through a small patch of woods (after you secure permission from the property owner and hear the story of the little burial ground) adjacent to a farm house and suburban housing edition.
Even if you don't find the records you are searching for, driving through the mountains where your ancestors lived gives you a feel for their home turf. You understand what drew them to the area.
You might get the opportunity to meet with the local genealogist or a family historian who can give you new insights into your family research. That may lead you to an old cemetery or farmstead with ancestral connections.
Then there's that serendipitous moment when, after a couple of hours of unsuccessful tombstone hunting, you head back to the car and suddenly out of the corner of your eye you see a familiar name. Your great-grandparents were there all the time!
Maybe staying at home and doing online research would have been easier but the finds and the experiences of being there? Priceless!