In historical biogeography, phylogenetic trees have long been used as tools for addressing a wide range of inference problems, from explaining common distribution patterns of species to reconstructing ancestral geographic ranges on branches of the tree of life. However, the potential utility of phylogenies for this purpose has yet to be fully realized, due in part to a lack of explicit conceptual links between processes underlying the evolution of geographic ranges and processes of phylogenetic tree growth. We suggest that statistical approaches that use parametric models to forge such links will stimulate integration and propel hypothesis-driven biogeographical inquiry in new directions. We highlight here two such approaches and describe how they represent early steps towards a more general framework for model-based historical biogeography that is based on likelihood as an optimality criterion, rather than having the traditional reliance on parsimony. The development of this framework will not be without significant challenges, particularly in balancing model complexity with statistical power, and these will be most apparent in studies of regions with many component areas and complex geological histories, such as the Mediterranean Basin.