True confessions: I've fallen headfirst and hard into researching my family tree. If you haven't done it - word of warning - it's a deep, dark rabbit hole. My plan, once I've researched enough, is to take an ancestry trip to explore my family tree - one branch at a time.
Then I talked to my dear friend, Melissa Berry of the Everyday Spokane blog, about her first ancestry trip and the plans for her second. I immediately asked for all her tips on how to plan my own heritage journey.
If you want to take your own Ancestry trip - read on and then execute, People!
You’ve probably seen the commercials: happy families with percentages over their heads, getting together for the holidays. Or a single woman, visiting all sorts of unique and interesting locations, from frozen wonderlands to tropical beaches. Each of the commercials ends the same way: encouraging you to sign up for a genealogy program, like 23AndMe or Ancestry, to learn more about your heritage.
Whether you sign up for a program to learn more about your specific genealogical history or you decide to take an ancestry trip given the family history you have, there are a few things you’ll want to do before heading out. Chances are your trip will be long and may include a flight over an ocean, so make sure to read up on Cindi’s awesome post on the best travel carry-on essentials for long flights and her best tools for travel planning in order to get good deals and plan your trip.
Once you’ve planned your trip as best as you can (best to plan a little loosely, in case you find out something really interesting in one city and want to stay longer), it’s time to prepare for your first ancestry trip!
Taking My First Ancestry Trip
I have to say, when I went on my first ancestry trip, I was unnecessarily cocky. This was pre-23AndMe and pre-DNA-Ancestry info. I had done some genealogical work on Ancestry.com, made sure to ask my grandmother all of the information she could recall on her family, and basically figured that was enough.
I figured I would show up in Ireland, easily find our records based on the information gathered, and bring back a goldmine of information I could show off to my completely-not-interested-in-genealogy family.
I’m sure you see where this is going - it didn’t turn out that way at all. When I and my cousin (who’d come along to learn more about this side of her family, too) reached Cork, Ireland and began looking in the library records, we were immediately stymied. What I hadn’t known was how... creative... people could get with spelling names. Plus, all of the men for some reason shared the same first name and, apparently, everyone had the same occupation (or so it seemed).
At one of the church libraries we were working in, a kindly priest tried to make me feel better by telling me some of the records had been destroyed in a fire. “In the 1860s?” I asked. “Sure,” he replied - but I’m pretty sure he was lying to make me feel better.
Preparing for and Getting the Most Out of Your First Ancestry Trip
After drowning my sorrows in some Guinness and encouraging my cousin to go after some cute Irish guys (her response: “no - they’re probably related to us!”), I realized we could have been more successful if we had taken a few key steps before we got to Ireland.
First, realize that not every ancestry trip is the same.
If your family kept very good records, or is a recent arrival and still has living family abroad, the trip should be a lot more successful for you. The further away you are from living relatives from ‘the old country’, the harder it will be. But just because we struggled finding our relatives (only 4 generations away - not as far as some!) doesn’t mean you will!
While ancestry trips are different for everyone, use these tips for getting the most out of your ancestry trip:
- Do some research before you go. Which side of your family came from this country? What do you know about them? Do you know the region from which they came? If you know, start by planning your trip there. Some countries are very big, and being able to narrow it down will help shape your itinerary.
When I took my first ancestry trip, I hadn’t yet taken an Ancestry.com DNA test. While the results didn’t surprise me, since I’ve taken it, I’ve been connected to more people who’ve done serious research on my family tree. I’ve even connected to someone around my age who lives in England (and is related to that side of my family!).
If you can, before you go, take a DNA test, do some research within your own family and whatever records you can find online, and get to know as much as you can about where you’re visiting. If you really want to research your history, this prep work will be invaluable - and may connect you with a living, breathing relative!
- Attend events, places, museums, hikes and more from the area where your family is from. We did some hiking, museum-touring, and bed and breakfast stays around Ireland because we really wanted to get to know and experience it. Visit churches, libraries - any place that may have more information about your family can be informative. You may find information you never would get from an online search!
Not only is it just a great idea to get out and do things when you travel, but you may also learn more things about your family history while out. Most of our (limited) success came from visiting churches, but even the museums gave us an interesting backstory of what was going on when our ancestors lived there. Museums gave us a background and hiking around the countryside made us feel we were connected to our family, as they may have walked those same or similar trails.
- Live like a local. As much as possible, try to get into the culture while on your ancestry trip. We visited Ireland for a little over a week, and we toured the whole island. We rented a car and stayed at bed and breakfasts along the way, so we could take our time, talk to locals, and feel like part of the community. There’s nothing like driving on tiny roads in the middle of Ireland, trying to get to a museum before it closes, only to be waylaid by sheep!
For me, it felt like a homecoming. I looked like I fit in while in Ireland - not particularly tall, curly, reddish-brown hair. People didn’t treat me like an American ‘outsider’ when I was in Ireland, because I didn’t really stand out from the crowd.
This was not my cousin’s experience (taller, darker-haired) and it may not be yours either - but that’s okay! Depending on your genealogical history, the first ancestry trip you take might not feel like a homecoming. None of your trips may feel like a homecoming - and all of that is okay too. But keep an open mind, because you never know what you may learn or experience while taking an ancestry tip - and it might surprise you.
Planning My Second Ancestry Trip
Needless to say, I’m planning my second ancestry trip (for my Dad’s side) but taking my own advice this time. For this trip, I’m very glad I took a DNA test, because where we thought my Dad’s family was from (Germany) is not… it turns out, he’s mostly Scottish. A surprise to everyone (including my family’s last name, which is a top 10 common German name). So it’s off to Scotland for me next - not Germany!
However, I learned my lesson in a variety of ways, and this trip will be significantly different because of three key factors:
- Planning ahead - I’ve done much more research on this side of the family, and have planned my trip accordingly. I’ve researched where I want to go, roughly where I want to stay, and the museums I’d like to visit.
- Not being disappointed by what I do or don’t find. I’m not expecting to find any traces of my Dad’s side in Scotland - first of all, our family name isn’t Scottish, and I don’t know where I’d start. But you never know what you may find - from research, I discovered there was a war in Scotland around the time we think my ancestors fled to Germany. Could this be the reason we’re ‘German’? Maybe - but I’d like to go to Scotland and learn more about this time period to learn more.
- Realizing that ancestry is more than just ‘where you’re from’ - For some people, it can be easy to get discouraged and feel down about a country (or travel in general) if things you planned didn’t go right. This can feel even heavier if it’s an ancestry trip and nothing is going right.
There’s a chance you plan an ancestry trip to France because you’re 45% French, but you get there and absolutely hate it. Maybe you have 5% Spanish, so you head there and feel like you totally fit in and fall in love with the country.
All of that is okay! It’s about what you want to get out of it and adjusting your expectations. If I had gone to Germany expecting to fit in, but felt very out of place, I might feel like something was wrong with me. But don’t forget: if you’re reading Traveling Later, chances are you’re traveling because you love to travel.
Travel and affinity for other cultures aren’t dictated by your DNA - imagine how boring life would be if we only traveled to places ‘where we were from’ - I’d never love Morrocco if that were the case!
Ancestry travel can be amazing, life-changing, and connect you to your heritage in ways you never dreamed. It also may be disappointing, sad, or make you feel out of place. I recommend everyone who’s interested take an ancestry trip, but (as with most travel advice) be realistic and roll with what you find!
Are you planning an ancestry trip? Where would you go?
Melissa Berry is a travel blogger at Everyday Spokane, a local travel blog for people relocating to and living in the Inland Northwest. When she’s not planning trips, she works as a freelance editor and website consultant. You can read more of her work at Everyday Spokane.