When Richard Hill set out to find his biological parents, he didn’t expect he would wind up on a vacation. But when his DNA test results came in, he hit the road.
“Within weeks, my wife and I drove from Grand Rapids to Houston,” says Hill, who wrote about his experience in a book, Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA.
Among the highlights: visiting the ranch near Coldspring, Texas, settled by his great-grandfather in 1859, which is still owned and operated by one of his cousins. Hill also saw the foundation of his great-grandfather’s cabin and his headstone in the nearby cemetery.
“This provided a real sense of place for my previously unknown roots,” he says.
DNA-inspired vacations are growing. Tour operators, cruise lines, hotels and, of course, the DNA testing services are catering to travelers who want to find their roots. But the journey can be expensive and frustrating, as I learned.
EF Go Ahead Tours recently began offering packages designed to take travelers on a journey into their personal histories. The trips combine Ancestry.com’s DNA test results, help from a team of in-house genealogists and a traditional tour. The tours focus on Western Europe, including Ireland, Germany and Italy.
Several cruise lines are hosting genealogy-themed sailings. Cunard’s November “A Journey of Genealogy” cruise on the Queen Mary 2 will host seminars to help passengers discover their family trees, and there’s a post-voyage Ellis Island and New York Ancestral Trail excursion. Royal Caribbean has an “Unlock the Past” Alaskan cruise on the Explorer of the Seas (Sept. 7) that includes heritage seminars and an optional full-day land conference in Seattle featuring leading DNA and British Isles experts.
The Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin has its own “genealogy butler” who can help you unravel the threads of your Irish family history. A one-hour consultation, which costs 140 euros (about $163), will assess the information on your family’s Irish emigrants and draw up a practical research plan for tracing your Irish ancestors in Dublin.
Many tour operators and travel agencies also specialize in heritage-based travel, including companies such as European Focus, Heritage Tours – which offers Morocco, Turkey, Africa, Israel and Jordan in addition to its several European destinations – and Your Travel Services.
If you’re interested in finding out more about your ancestral homeland, a DNA hook can make your next vacation more meaningful. But if you take one of the commercially available DNA tests from Ancestry.com or 23andme.com, they can be maddening.
I know about this firsthand. On a recent visit to Salt Lake City, I stumbled upon the Family History Library, where one of the helpful missionaries showed me how to build a family tree online. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offers a free online tool at Familysearch.org, which lets you trace your ancestry.
I decided to dig further. I took several DNA tests, all of which revealed I had British, Greek and Ukrainian heritage. That intrigued me even more. What if I could visit those places and introduce my children to their long-lost relatives? What would they have in common? What would they say to each other?
Climbing the family tree is easier said than done. While the British side of my family is traceable back to the 900s, I ran into major obstacles in Greece, thanks to the Greek revolution of the early 19th century, and in Ukraine, courtesy of World War II. I spent so much time researching my lineage in Salt Lake City that my family thought I was considering a career switch to genealogy. In the end, though, I could narrow my search only to Kovel, Ukraine, and Sparta, Greece. If I tried to visit either town at this point, I would just end up wandering the streets aimlessly.
The key to a successful “finding your roots” vacation is doing your research and setting your expectations.
The Family History Library has some free resources online, and you can visit the library in person. The volunteer researchers offer guidance on where to look for your lost relatives but generally won’t conduct research for you. Ancestry.com offers professional help with prices starting at about $2,000. You can also find an independent genealogist through the Association of Professional Genealogists, which can refer you to a professional who can assist with research. Rates vary.
Sometimes, the results can be dramatic. Eunan Smyth, an Irish tour guide for CIE Tours International, remembers one customer who found his grandfather’s house on her tour.
“It was still being occupied by a family with the same surname,” she says. “And when he knocked on the door and told them that, they brought him in and showed him photographs of his grandfather and great-grandfather. That man came back to us with a tear in his eye because he went home.”
But that’s the exception. Hill, the author, points out that it took decades to find his birth family. And as he scaled his tree, he also hit a dead end when he traced his father’s lineage to a man born in 1742 in Virginia.
“DNA testing has led me to many distant cousins descended from the same man,” he says. “But the courthouse in the county where he was born was one of many burned by the Union Army in the Civil War. All the records are lost, and none of my distant cousins have been able to identify his parents.”
I know what that’s like. Welcome to the Brick Wall Club. But fixating on a lost relative may make you miss the big picture.
Maybe it’s not about finding a distant cousin or a family farm. Instead, maybe it’s about visiting a place you’ve never been and seeing something you recognize in the people you meet.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.