Becky Hart | Aug 21, 2023
Travel is one of the best ways to learn about other cultures. That’s not news. But what about discovering more about your own culture? How can travel help you uncover your own family’s roots and maybe help you learn about where you come from?
If that sparks your interest, it’s time you planned an ancestry tour.
Not all ancestry tours are the same. On one end of the spectrum, there’s heritage travel, which involves you visiting the city, country, or region your family is from. You learn about the culture and perhaps visit a few historical sites.
At the other end of the spectrum is genealogy travel. This tends to be more intense and dives deeper into your unique history. You not only visit the city where your ancestors came from, but perhaps also see the home where they perhaps grew up or even still live. You might continue researching your family history at libraries, records offices, or religious centers.
Which you choose depends on what you want out of your trip and how big your budget is. Genealogy travel is typically more expensive. This is because you may hire experts to help with research, pay fees for accessing documents, and book customized tours. These are often longer trips as well, which means you’ll be spending more. Don’t expect to uncover family secrets in a weekend.
If you’re less interested in uncovering your family’s history and simply want to get a taste of your cultural background, heritage tourism is for you. You’ll have greater flexibility to explore the aspects of the culture that excite you and greater control over your time and budget.
Hiring a tour company to help you with your research on a genealogy trip can help you make more progress quicker. They may have access to records you wouldn’t on your own, and they can help you navigate differences in culture and bureaucracy.
Some companies, like Ancestry ProGenealogists, include a DNA test in the cost of the tour. From there, you might be visiting a general area, or they can help you connect with distant relatives, find specific plots of land or buildings related to your family, and more. You might even travel with professional genealogists to guide you along the way.
Of course, you can always make this adventure on your own, especially if you’re taking the heritage tour route. You may not need a guide if you simply want to explore Thailand in honor of your grandparents.
Learn as much as possible about your family before your trip, especially if you’ve decided on a genealogy tour. Doing so will allow you to focus your itinerary on the right places as well as save you time and money.
Plus, if you’ve hired someone at your destination to help you continue your research, you’ll want to give them as much information as possible. That improves the odds they’ll uncover even more gems.
How do you research your family ancestry?
One place to start is with a DNA test. There are several reputable companies that will analyze a saliva sample and tell you which parts of the world your family comes from.
Some people are surprised by the results; they might have fewer Asian genetic markers or more African background than they realized, for example. DNA results can sometimes dispel family myths.
If you have no idea where your family history begins, DNA tests can help you focus on the right regions and, in some cases, specific countries.
Another good place to start is with your own family archives and relatives. Not everyone likes to talk about the past, but some people will jump at the opportunity. There may be stories you’ve never heard simply because you never asked. While some family stories turn out to be myths handed down through the generations, they may still contain a seed of truth.
Colorado couple Bill and Jane Frobose each traced their relations in Europe through other family members. “Bill was able to contact his aunt, and she knew of a distant cousin who had the address and contact information for his second cousin who lived in Germany,” said Jane.
Another Coloradan, Bill Lane, used family photos, newspaper clippings, and obituaries, passed down through generations, to jumpstart his research. By supplementing those records with others found online, he was able to trace his lineage back to his great-grandmother's farm in Norway.
Don’t ignore good old-fashioned libraries to find out more about your family history. Some have extensive collections of public records to provide clues. Some of the most valuable libraries and research centers include the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and FamilySearch Library, which is maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
There are many other libraries across the country that specialize in groups in a particular region. For example, the Denver Public Library focuses on families from Colorado and the American West, while the Birmingham (Alabama) Public Library is particularly helpful for researching Southern ancestry and for tracking relatives that came from the Caribbean.
Once you’ve made your way to the library, or even just in your living room on the internet — digitized archives are a beautiful thing — what should you look for?
Aside from any additional research you might do or family visits you might make, you’ll want to plan activities to make your trip extra enjoyable.
Find events or sites your ancestors would recognize. This could include shopping at a market, attending a festival, or touring a church or other historic place. Think about what your relatives’ experience would have been like, and how it might differ or be similar to what you’re witnessing.
When Jane Frobose explored her Czech family’s hometown, they visited a church where they would have worshiped. “That was kind of neat to think, ‘Am I sitting in the same pew they might have?’” she said.
One of the reasons heritage travel is popular is that it can teach us so much about a culture and our own identity. Be purposeful about planning outings that introduce you to something new. This could be signing up for a lesson in folk dancing, learning to cook a regional dish, seeing how a local handicraft is made, or attending a traditional sporting event.
No matter what you do, be mindful that you are a visitor to the community. What is a quest to understand your family’s background is someone else’s real life. They are not there for your amusement, and you may be considered an outsider, no matter how much you feel connected to your ancestral roots. Be respectful and give back to the community when possible.
Nostalgia is a key part of heritage travel. Even if you’ve never experienced something before, you’ve probably heard stories or have some connection to the community you’re visiting. It’s why you’ve chosen this immersive trip in the first place.
This nostalgia can be quite emotional for some people. And the things they discover about their families during ancestral travel can feel overwhelming, even upsetting. We see this when people discover a relative’s involvement in genocide in Nazi Germany or learn about an ancestor’s role in slavery in the Deep South of the United States.
Family secrets can rattle your understanding of yourself. While an ancestor’s dark history is no reason for you to feel personal guilt, you may still need time to process your findings mentally and emotionally.
Even exciting finds can be emotionally draining. Maybe you’ve just an amazing pasta dinner with a long-lost aunt you met in Italy. Or maybe you’re adopted and, after years of trying to trace anything about your background, you finally found some answers you’d only dreamt of before. Give yourself time to bask in the happiness and prepare for whatever comes next.
Even if you aren’t overcome with emotion, giving yourself time to slow down can be a good way to be very authentic and intentional about your travel experiences. Instead of just scratching the surface of your explorations, you have the time to truly see and understand.
Travel insurance can protect the money you invest in your trip as well as your belongings and your health. And you’re investing a lot when you take on ancestral travel. Some estimates say culture and heritage tourism accounts for $1 billion worldwide. Travelers on heritage tours spend almost 40% more per day than other travelers.
When you have a lot of prepaid, nonrefundable trip expenses, travel insurance can help you recover those costs if you have to cancel or interrupt your trip. You’ll also be protected against travel delays, missed tour connections, and other unexpected events.
If your ancestry tour takes you overseas, travel medical insurance can cover the cost of care if you get sick or hurt during your trip. Domestic health insurance typically does not follow you during international travel, making travel medical insurance a smart decision. After all, you never know where your next genealogy find might take you.
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