Genealogical vacations combine family history with travel in very specific ways. Taking a genealogy vacation is different from traveling to a national park or spending a week at the beach. Family history travel is more personal, whether you are researching specific family lines or visiting the places your ancestors lived. Genealogy vacations also present unusual challenges and opportunities.
Planning ahead is the best way to make sure your genealogy vacation is successful. We'll help you decide which type of family history trip will be best for you and pass along some road-tested planning and packing tips.
Types of Genealogy Vacations
There are several ways to explore your family history on a genealogy vacation. You can spend your time conducting research in a family history library, archive or church. Alternatively, you can visit the places your ancestors lived and immerse yourself in the culture and history of those areas. Finally, you can take a trip to your ancestors' original homeland, independently or with a genealogy tour group, even if you are not sure exactly where your ancestors were born.
Let's take a closer look at each type of genealogy vacation.
Genealogy Research Vacations
It sounds like an oxymoron – going on vacation to do research – but many family history buffs do just that. Having hours and hours to spend in a family history research center or at the National Archives in Washington, DC, is a genealogist's dream.
Still, even genealogy vacation time is limited; planning ahead will help you make the most of your research opportunities. Before you leave home, you should think about:
- How much time will you need at the research center?
- Which family members will you focus on?
- How many research centers, archives, and libraries can you visit during your trip?
- Are these research opportunities available only at your destination, or can you maximize the use of your time by doing some preliminary investigations from home?
- What will your travel partner(s) do while you are researching – play golf? Take day trips?
- Is this a research-only trip, or will you combine research and sightseeing?
Thinking through the answers to these questions will help you determine the focus of your genealogy vacation. It is easy to wander down a "rabbit trail" when searching for your ancestors, but you will want to stay on task during your family history research time.
If you are traveling with family or friends, plan to spend some non-research time with them during your trip, particularly if genealogy does not interest them. Spending day after day alone while you immerse yourself in microfilmed records may frustrate your travel partner. Perhaps you can find golf courses, day spas, antique malls or craft classes for your travel partner to enjoy on your research days.
Visit Your Ancestor's Home Town
If you are tracing your family's history, few activities are more thrilling than traveling to your ancestor's village or gravesite. Standing where your forebears walked long ago is an amazing experience. Whether you travel to distant state or province or cross an ocean to see your ancestral homeland, you will never forget that "Wow, I'm here!" feeling.
As you plan your visit to the place your ancestors once lived, don't forget to allow yourself plenty of time to wander around and immerse yourself in the local culture. Be brave and mention your genealogy quest to everyone you meet. You may run across someone who can tell you where to buy a town history or show you photographs from days gone by. Consider staying in or near the town, attending worship services there and eating in family-owned restaurants. Everywhere you go, take pictures – include buildings, streets, churches, and cemeteries – and keep a journal so you don't forget important details.
Be sure to pack maps or a GPS so you don't waste valuable time getting lost. Bring a phrase book and a separate list of genealogy terms (which are rarely included in tourist phrase books) if you are traveling to a place where you don't speak the language well.
Take pictures even if you can't find your ancestor's actual home or church. You will want to remember what the area looked like, and you may be able to help a fellow family historian some day.
Genealogy Tours and Heritage Vacations
If you are planning a trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, or to a completely unfamiliar ancestral homeland where you don't speak the language, taking an organized genealogy tour may be the best way to get the most out of your genealogy vacation.
Road Scholar occasionally sponsors trips to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Road Scholar also offers other genealogy-related trips; itineraries vary from year to year.
James and Jenean Derheim offer customized European genealogy tours through their tour company, European Focus. These private tour opportunities focus on research and cultural immersion; the Derheims familiarize themselves with your ancestral town or village before you visit and make arrangements for genealogy research, cemetery visits and any other family history travel you may wish to experience.
Ancestral Journeys of Scotland creates travel experiences for people of Scottish descent. You can go on a customized vacation built around your ancestors and the places they lived and worked. If you don't know exactly where your Scottish ancestors lived, you can visit places associated with your family name(s) or even with your DNA.
Independent Genealogy Vacations
You don't have to work with a tour operator to plan a successful genealogy vacation. I have taken my family to visit ancestral villages, churches and cemeteries in France's Alsace region, Germany, Nova Scotia and the U.S. Traveling independently gave us the opportunity to do research, see places affordably and journey at our own pace. Careful planning is the key to success if you plan to create your own genealogy vacation.
The first thing you will need to do is determine the purpose of your trip. Many travelers like to combine research with cultural familiarization. This is certainly the best approach to take if you are traveling with others. You can plan an itinerary that will give you time to sift through documents and see the places your ancestors lived, taking into account the interests and preferences of your travel partners. If you know your ancestor's profession, for example, you might visit a museum dedicated to that occupation.
Next, you will need to find out when research centers, mayoral offices, and archives are open. You'll need to plan your itinerary around the operating hours of the research facilities you wish to visit.
Learning key words and polite phrases in the language of your ancestors will open many doors. Bring a phrase book and create a list of important genealogy terms.
Allow extra time for unplanned explorations. I spent an afternoon in Germany's Saarland traipsing from shop to shop, trying to find out how to buy a book about my ancestral town's history. I ended up in the mayor's office – in his home - buying just the book I wanted.
Take five times as many photos as you think you should – or more. Photograph churches, cemetery headstones, road signs, farmhouses, shops, and landscapes. Later, you'll be happy you recorded a visual impression of your ancestral home.
Genealogy Vacation Planning Tips
Genealogy vacations aren't like standard trips. You are visiting places your grandchildren may ask you about years from now. Planning ahead will pay off in ways you cannot imagine. Our genealogy planning tips will help you get started, but you will also need to look at your goals and itinerary as you organize your family history trip.
- Allow extra time – lots of it – for getting lost, talking with locals and taking photographs.
- Remember to bring addresses, opening days and times and contact information for every place you plan to visit. Print out a list of national holidays, too.
- Leave extra room in your luggage to bring home books, copies and unexpected mementos.
- Family history libraries and research centers may charge admission; you will certainly need to pay for any copies you make. Bring small bills and change to pay for these services.
- Never, ever bring original family history documents on research trips. Make copies and bring them instead.
- Bring pencils, digital camera batteries, and extra memory sticks. A spiral notebook with folder pockets will help you keep trip-related notes and documents together.
- Consider bringing a laptop (if allowed at your research center) or tape recorder, to preserve your notes, thoughts and random ramblings.
- If you plan to visit outdoor locations, such as cemeteries, plan for bad weather. You have only one chance to get the information and photographs you want, so you will need sturdy shoes, insect repellent, an umbrella, sunscreen and a hat, at the very least.
Before You Go on Your Genealogy Vacation
Tell all of your relatives about your planned trip. Ask them what they remember about your family's history. Take careful notes and bring those notes on your vacation.
Find out when the places you plan to visit are open. Write down this information. If you're not sure where to find this information, start with the local genealogical society, convention and visitors bureau or chamber of commerce.
Invest in good maps or bring a GPS. Getting lost wastes research time and frustrates everyone. If you are traveling overseas, consider buying maps at a bookstore in a large city near your ancestral town. They will be cheaper there than they are in your own country.
Practice saying genealogy-related sentences in the language of your destination country. If you're not sure how words are supposed to sound, check out language tapes from your library or use your library's language learning databases and subscriptions.
If you have never taken a research trip, contact your local Family History Center (run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), archives or genealogical society to learn how to delve into your family's past. The earlier you do this, the better; you can do a lot of research before you ever leave home, freeing up your genealogy vacation time for local research opportunities, cemetery visits, and cultural experiences.
Savor Your Genealogy Vacation Experience
Don't worry if your genealogy vacation doesn't go according to plan. You may discover something unexpected about your family's history – or you may not. It may take months or years before you find out whether the information you uncover on your family history vacation is useful. It's all part of the genealogy experience.
If your travels take you to another state or country, expect to have mixed feelings about the places you visit. Let's face it, most people don't leave their homeland and move to another country because things are going well. Even if your ancestral village turns out to be so small that it doesn't have a church or cemetery (thus derailing your plan to find your ancestor's headstone), you are still standing on the streets your forefathers walked. You can still discover for yourself the culture and traditions your ancestors brought to their new home and share those experiences with the rest of your family.