How to plan a family heritage vacation

Dec 22, 2019

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I have always had a minor obsession with tracing my family heritage. It was one of the ways I found to connect with my identity. I loved reading books about the places my family had come from, cooking foods from those places and corresponding with penpals from those countries.

After I married my husband, who identifies solidly as “Moroccan,” I had a renewed sense of wanting to know where I came from. I signed up at ancestry.com and started to create a family tree, beginning with what I knew: who my grandparents and great grandparents were and the ports through which they entered the U.S. There were plenty of family stories, which may or may not be true.

The deeper I got into building my family tree, the more I wanted to visit these places, learn about why they left and see if any family members remained. I also did two DNA tests: 23andMe and AncestryDNA. Using the research tools on Ancestry, I identified the family members and places I was hoping to connect with.

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This research was my road map. I decided to trace my family’s journey by visiting my ancestors’ hometowns and the ports from which they departed. (My husband’s immigration story was from Morocco to the U.S., mine was from the U.S. to Morocco.) So, it was important for me to connect with my ancestors’ stories too.

Planning Travel

The first step in planning a heritage trip is knowing the reason why you want to take the trip. Do you want to simply visit the country and get a sense for it? Are you hoping to track down archival records or family property? Do you want to connect with relatives who are still living there? Your goals should determine your travel plans.

I took several trips to make this happen. Because I live in North Africa, it’s easy to travel to Europe.

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When I went to Sicily I wanted to find my great-grandfather’s birth certificate but I had no idea where to start except that I knew the city listed on the passenger manifest when he entered the United States. With this scant information, I managed to find his birth certificate but it would have helped me more to do the following:

  • Understand where records like birth certificates are stored and reach out in advance, if possible, to locate the paperwork.
  • Hire an Italian-speaking guide or translator.
  • Had an idea of where else to look if the records came up empty.

Just visiting and getting a sense of life in the places my family left behind was meaningful but it was their experiences I learned about that truly made the trips worth it.

When we visited Gjøvik, a city in eastern Norway, I was amazed at what I was able to find. Not only did we find records tracing back to my second great-grandfather (and further) but also found the Mjøsmuseet, a museum that documents the history of the people and the Norwegian landscape. I was able to find family records and experience what life was like for my family — even seeing the actual grain mill my third great-grandfather operated.

At times, we were left with more questions than answers. I had a hard time finding many documents or connections in Germany and was informed time and time again that most records dating before World War II had been destroyed. The one place where we did have success was going to the church in the city where my second great-grandparents had been married. In the church registry, we found marriage and baptism records.

Tips for planning a family heritage trip

Know your ‘why’ and make connections in advance

In order to save time (and money) know why you’re going and what you hope to get out of it. Connect with town offices in advance so that you can make the best use of your time. If you show up without a plan and hope to walk into offices for help, you might be disappointed.

Plan your route and overnights well

Flying into a major airport is usually the easiest and most inexpensive starting point. Use discount carriers, trains and rental cars once you arrive to help you travel longer distances more affordably.

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A bed-and-breakfast can be a way to save money and also connect with local residents — a fantastic way to learn more about the culture.

Bring as much information as you can

I created a file in my Google Drive that had copies of anything I was able to pull from ancestry.com about the person I was researching. This included names of spouses and parents, birth dates, and death dates. Being able to pull up this information on the spot made my research easier.

Be prepared to think outside the box

I hadn’t considered that a church would be a source for records from long ago but it was. Visiting cemeteries was also helpful in finding names as families tend to be buried together. 

Use tourism boards and guides

Even when I didn’t have specific information, I was interested in learning about the city and region at the time my family left and the reasons they might have left it all behind. I connected with tourism boards which helped me find local guides who specialize in the history of the period. This was invaluable.

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