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5 Tips for Planning a Family Ancestry Trip

Doing your homework can make heritage travel more rewarding

two women sitting at a table looking at a map, planning a trip

Oliver Rossi/Getty Images

En español | Heritage trips are a top travel trend for 2019, according to Lonely Planet, and Airbnb reports a 500-percent increase in the number of guests visiting places connected with their ancestry in the past five years. If you're interested in traveling to explore your own family's roots, experts have some advice:

Research as much as you can before you go

Jackie Hogan, a sociology professor at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, and author of the new book Roots Quest, says it's a mistake to show up in your ancestors’ village with a vague plan to knock on doors, hoping to find people who knew your relatives. “To get the most out of the experience, you need to do most of your research before you step on a plane,” she advises. That includes identifying a local contact, such as a family member you've connected with through your research or a guide you could hire to help you when you arrive.

As part of your research, Jennifer Utley, director of research at, recommends doing some reading about the place where you're going. “A work of nonfiction or historical fiction can give a sense of time and place when your ancestors were there,” Utley says. “This can help you better understand what they were going through and why they made the decisions they made."

Consider a group tour

Lots of tour companies have sprung up to meet the demand for help with ancestry travel, ranging from general group tours to customized, private experiences for families. and Go Ahead Tours are a few that offer heritage trips led by genealogists.

Pack smart

A few things to tuck into your suitcase:

  • A summary of important information about your ancestors (names, dates of birth and death, any addresses you have)
  • Addresses and hours of operation of any records offices you hope to visit
  • Photographs of yourself and your family through the years (hard copies or digital images on your smartphone or laptop) to share with newfound relatives
  • Thank-you gifts for relatives and other helpful people you meet on your journey (ideas: food or other items from the region where you currently live or a framed family photograph)

Understand that family histories aren't always pleasant

"There is always the possibility that you'll find something you didn't want to find,” says Hogan — that your relatives owned slaves, for example, or there was infidelity in your family or your grandfather wasn't who you thought he was. “It's not always a happy ending,” she warns.

If you do find something upsetting in your past, Hogan recommends looking at it as information that helps you in your search for the truth. “The facts may be less than desirable, but the reality is that all the experiences of our ancestors led to us. We can only benefit from having a deeper understanding of them."

Keep expectations realistic

Some people who take heritage trips hope, and fail, to find a very specific missing piece of a family puzzle. Others may dream of touching an ancestor's childhood home, only to learn that the house is no longer there. In these cases, travelers may come away feeling let down.

Instead, Hogan urges acceptance of, and gratitude for, what you discover: “If you go into the trip with a goal of soaking in your environment — the sights, smells, tastes and sounds of that place — you will not be disappointed.”

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