Ancestry travel is one of the hottest travel trends right now. Thanks to DNA analysis and genealogical research tools by companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe, we have a better, more precise idea than ever before of exactly where we come from, and traveling to those places can be an indelible, moving experience.
Whether your ancestry search takes you across the state or around the world, here are a few tips to keep in mind as you plan your quest.
1. Consider Budget And Location
As with every trip, you’ll want to bear in mind the bottom line. While the idea of a global trip to explore one’s roots might seem like a great one in theory, in reality, many of us need to stick to travel budgets. Consider choosing one of the top countries on your DNA profile — and one that is closer and less expensive — for a first-time trip, as opposed to a difficult-to-access destination.
Another word to the wise: Many online ancestry sites will show the migration of your relatives from their home countries to the United States. You might end up having an equally rewarding experience traveling to the domestic city where your ancestors first settled. It will be easier on your wallet, and you won’t have to deal with a possible language barrier.
2. Be Prepared
Once you’ve determined where you want to go, keep in mind that the key to a successful ancestry trip is preparation. Make sure you’ve got important documents — including wedding announcements, birth certificates, and even obituaries — organized, preferably in electronic form so that packing isn’t difficult. The same goes for photos and your family tree. You’ll want to have all of the essentials at your fingertips to help connect the dots once you’ve reached your destination. Going to visit a place where your ancestors once lived is an incredible experience; having the knowledge and context to back it up makes it all the more meaningful.
3. Reach Out To Family Members Online
Another perk of most major online ancestry sites is the ability to reach out to relatives you might not even have known existed! People whose DNA partially matches yours are listed, along with information on how closely you’re related and your common ancestors. These people (most likely cousins) could help fill in gaps in your family tree or offer other insights. If they live in the areas you plan to visit during your trip, schedule a coffee or lunch. It’s a terrific way to make new friends and present-day connections to your ancestors.
4. Map Out Your Time
Perhaps there’s a certain person or place you’re chasing down, such as the church where your great-grandparents were married or the house where they once lived. Maybe you don’t want to be as specific, and just want to get a feel for your ancestors’ homeland.
Whatever form your trip takes, it’s important to map out your time accordingly. Chances are you’ll want to check out several towns or spots in your quest to learn more about where your family came from. To be sure you’ll have enough time to see everything you want to, take into account travel time, including drive time, time on the rails, and total time spent at each place. Your schedule doesn’t need to be so rigid that it excludes all flexibility, but it’s wise to have an idea of how you’ll allocate your time.
5. Call Ahead
Another tip, especially if you plan on doing a records search or document dive during your trip, is to call ahead! Libraries, archives, city halls, churches, and even cemeteries can all be invaluable treasure troves of information to help you learn more about your family. That said, there’s nothing worse than finding out these resources are closed while you’re on your trip. Knowing their operating hours before you go will save you both time and disappointment. Another perk of contacting these places ahead of time? Many staffers or volunteers will be happy to guide you in your research if you make arrangements before you arrive and fill them in on the documents or information you’re seeking.
6. Consider Hiring A Pro
If you want to trace your family’s roots but don’t have time for extensive research and preparation, hiring a pro might make sense. A quick online search including your destination city or country will bring up many professionals who could take on your case and start digging; that said, consider starting with the Association of Professional Genealogists. The organization’s members abide by a clear Code of Ethics and Professional Practices, and the site provides the contact information of certified specialists focusing on adoption, DNA, African-American, and Native-American searches. You can easily browse the site to find a great fit, whether in the U.S. or abroad. No matter what you decide, keep in mind that you are paying a professional for their time, not a guarantee of specific results.
7. Manage Your Expectations
We’ve all seen the genealogy television shows where family mysteries are neatly solved for celebrities and stars. The pieces come together perfectly, complete with a pretty bow on top, all in a single broadcast.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that this isn’t the typical genealogy experience. Even the most seasoned researchers can and do run into dead-ends when tracing ancestry. Sometimes, sadly, lost records and broken paper trails can stymie your efforts to track down information about your family.
That said, resolve to enjoy the experience of traveling to where they came from, even if you can’t nail down specifics about their individual journeys. You might not be able to track down an address or place of birth for an ancestor, but you can walk the same streets they did, experience the same culture, eat the same types of food, and get a sense of what their lives were like. This can be a powerful and life-changing experience, even if you don’t have all the answers by the end of your trip. While you might come away with fewer facts than you’d imagined, you’ll be all the richer for having made the journey.
8. Document Your Trip
You probably won’t be taking your entire extended family along with you on your genealogy quest. That said, they’ll still be interested in what you uncover, and in your experiences on the road. Make sure to document your trip in several different ways.
Be ready to record what you learn, whether by photocopy, smartphone snap, or direct input to your online family tree.
If you’re meeting with distant relatives, make sure to record any family stories, thoughts, or insights they have to share on your smartphone; you can easily convert these recordings into files that can be sent to folks back home via email. You can also transcribe them once you get home and add them to your family tree.
Take lots of photos — more than you think you’ll need — for your family back home. This is a chance for them to take part in what you’re experiencing firsthand. They’ll appreciate your efforts to include them.
As I mentioned before, it can be an overwhelming, full-circle feeling to know you’re returning to the place where those who came before you lived and raised their families. With this in mind, consider keeping a travel journal while on your adventure so that you can jot down and process those feelings.