In recent years, DNA testing has become big business beyond just the saliva kits your relatives gift each other around the holidays. Ancestry travel options like genealogy tours through European homelands are turning even non-travelers into DNA tourists with the help of those tests.
Following a DNA test, a genealogist or tour operator could take you along the same roads your ancestors walked—sometimes even to the very homes they lived in or the places of worship they frequented. If you’re interested in traveling back in time through your own family’s ancestry, you’ll need some expert help.
With plenty of kits and tours to choose from, how do you choose the right combination of ancestry DNA testing and trusted genealogy expert?
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The Best DNA Testing Kits
DNA test results still aren’t perfect, and often depend upon the database yours are being compared to, which means you’ll want a testing company with a large database behind it: AncestryDNA and 23andMe are generally the most popular options.
Primarily aimed at wellness-focused DNA inquiries, 23andMe provides insight into your health and the likelihood you could develop a genetic disease—but also offers a simpler, ancestry-only DNA kit. For travelers, AncestryDNA can be connected to online family trees that allow you to search public records based on names, locations, and birth dates; this gives it an advantage for starting your own genealogy search into U.S. records.
Overseas record searches, however, usually require the help of a seasoned genealogist who understands the record types, languages, and research logistics of the specific region. It’s also worth noting that there are legitimate privacy concerns about large DNA databases. Both 23andMe and AncestryDNA, however, provide options that aim to keep personal data private from third parties.
If heading to your ancestors’ homeland means going somewhere with a language barrier, you’ll probably want to go big or go home on an organized group trip led by an expert genealogist, like AncestryDNA’s EF GoAhead tours. But there are also plenty of smaller tour operators in Europe, like My Ireland Tours and Ancestral Journeys of Scotland. The expert help could come from a local genealogist or an American genealogist working with a local expert. Either way, they take on all the work of finding your ancestors’ records and the relevant sites you can visit.
Right now, organized tours are typically to European destinations—just as Ancestry’s GoAhead genealogy tour options currently are. Ancestry tells me, however, that customized private trips beyond those regions, say to Asia or Africa, can be researched and subsequently arranged with the professional help of an Ancestry ProGenealogist. (You can read about one man’s DNA trip to Togo and Benin here.)
“We can do customized trips to other parts of the world, and we are interested in expanding to other areas,” an Ancestry spokesperson said. “Our tours started in Ireland with two itineraries; now we also offer Germany, two options in Italy, and one in Scotland.”
In English-speaking places, you might be able to simply meet up with a hired genealogist rather than joining a group tour. If you’re intent on researching your ancestors yourself, genealogy course options include Road Scholar’s six-day Researching Your Heritage program at the Library of Virginia, which is led by an expert genealogist who can show you the ropes.
What It’s Like to Be a DNA Tourist on a Genealogy Trip
To find out what it’s like to use the most popular kit option, AncestryDNA testing, to uncover your roots and then travel to the locations where your ancestors lived, I talked to someone who actually did it—plus the expert genealogist who helped him.
To solve the mystery of why his family left Germany hundreds of years ago, Jesse Liere tells me he set out on a journey that began with an AncestryDNA test and peaked with him standing in the well-preserved 13th-century church his ancestors frequented—reading their hand-written marriage records from a musty book.
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“I wanted to find out about my family history because a lot of it was unanswered,” Liere said. “I’d used Ancestry.com over the years, but records were limited because most were kept locally in Germany, often at churches.”
That’s what led him to take an AncestryDNA test and enlist the help of one of the site’s ProGenealogists, Kyle Betit, by taking an AncestryDNA GoAhead tour through Germany.
“The quality of certain records really varies; for example, Ireland has fewer records in general, and they’re less detailed than, say, in France or Germany,” Betit tells me. “But the ultimate experience is to go to a house or the site of a house where your ancestors lived, or a particular piece of land they owned. Ireland does have good maps and tax records, while in Italy, for example, the records might not say a house number, so we can sometimes only go to a specific section of town.”
That’s why DNA tourists shouldn’t have grand expectations for their trip. Just a general small-town visit can sometimes be a win if a records search doesn’t lead far.
“My goals were just to have a professional break down that brick wall in finding out my origins, and to actually go over there,” Liere said. “I’ve always wanted to do that.”
But he got a lot more than he expected. The trip culminated with an ancestral visit with his German-fluent local guide, Ursula Krause, who took Liere through the German towns of Gehrde and Badbergen to see farm sites and a 13th-century church linked to his family. Liere stood at the centuries-old font his relatives were likely baptized in, and was able to see a hand-written record of his great-great-grandparents’ marriage.
As for the mystery of why his family left, he found out that economic restrictions preventing them from buying any land led them to seek a better life in America in 1882. Accordingly, Liere also visited the ship docks from which his family is believed to have departed.
“I was surprised the churches were still standing,” Liere said. “And to walk in the steps of your ancestors—where they were married, where they were baptized—was overwhelming.” Liere is retired and lives in California, and is planning another trip through his ancestral roots on the other side of his family—Northern Ireland.
He says one of the most surprising parts of the Germany trip wasn’t the church or farm visit, but learning that his family had been pronouncing his last name wrong.
“It’s pronounced like the currency, the Italian ‘lira,’” he said.
“We had been mispronouncing it all these years.”
More from SmarterTravel:
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- 10 Fun Family Vacations for Multigenerational Travelers
- The Top Travel Destinations for 2019
SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon is a former news reporter who writes about all things travel. Follow her on Instagram @shanmcmahon.