Ancestry Travel: Family Roots & Routes

(German National Tourist Board/Torsten Kruger)

Europe beckons multi-generational travelers seeking to retrace their family roots.

Family trips are all about having fun and creating memories. And certainly those families taking trips abroad to unearth records, visit ancestral homes and meet what may be long-lost relatives fill a memory niche of their own. That grandparents and parents, often with kids in tow, are increasingly retracing family roots and routes is evident in the growing niche of travel companies and genealogical experts who specialize in heritage or ancestral trips.

hometown calling
And there may be no group of Americans who go “home” as often as those who are of Greek descent. Not only do they go to Greece every other year or so, but according to Kathy Pantazopoulos, senior travel consultant at Vista Travel in Cambridge, MA, “They usually go in summer for a month or two, and when possible, all family members go, primarily to be with their relatives.” And Pantazopoulos—whose father’s side is from Athens and mother’s from Lesbos Island—is no exception: she’s just back. Her clientele is a mix of American-Greek families and academics from Harvard and M.I.T., and she tells us that “even with all the economic woes in both Greece and the U.S., there has been no fall-off in bookings this year.”

Italy, another former emigration hotspot, presents a slightly different picture, according to TourCrafters’ president, Mauro Gallo, who reports that family travel in the Italian-American community is definitely on the rise, and most of the heritage travel is to the south: Puglia, Sicily and Calabria—poorer parts of Italy—as well as from around Venice, which was also quite poor in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Interestingly, Gallo points out that parents and kids traveling today want to not only visit their grandparents’ hometown, but want to learn more about Italy.

“Italian communities nowadays mostly think of themselves as American-Italians, not Italian-Americans, and while they may want to go back to their ancestral town for a few days, they really want to go touring, taking pride in seeing the “new” Italy—a land of great antiquities as well as fine food, great wine, coveted couture and design.”

TourCrafters’ average family trips are 10 days, and says Gallo, the group bookings can be 20 or more people, made up of a family or two, plus friends who want to see where friends are from.

exploring one’s heritage
In fact, with all the attention on tracing one’s roots—from popular TV shows such as NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” and the PBS series, “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates Jr., to tours in Kenya that follow in the steps of President Obama—the family travel set is getting more serious about its actual genealogy.

In arranging travel for families in search of Irish-born relatives, for example, travel agents have a friend at the Aer Lingus Vacation Store, which last fall launched its Discover Your Roots vacation, designed to help travelers trace their Irish heritage while visiting Ireland. The nuts and bolts of the package are roundtrip air to Dublin, one night at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin and five nights worth of vouchers for three-star B&Bs, and use of a rental car with unlimited miles. The superstar attraction included in the program, however, is a consultation with the genealogy butler at the Shelbourne Hotel, Helen Kelly, herself a professional genealogist. Well ahead of departure, Aer Lingus sends a 10-point questionnaire for travelers to fill in and return outlining what the family knows of its ancestor’s history. When clients arrive, Kelly and her colleagues will have done the preliminary research and drawn up a personalized plan to help clients navigate state and church records. She will then spend an hour or so with her guests to actually point them in the right direction to find the family’s actual hometown—as well as experience first-hand the landscapes, villages and maybe even pubs of family legend.

Family Tree Tours is another one of those companies that combines customized tours of ancestral haunts with research-intensive trips to sift through records and archives. Company founder Kathy Wurth reports that “after the death of my grandmother, my father wanted to know more about the family, but he couldn’t read old German script. So I learned in order to help him, the genealogy bug hit, and I have been researching now for over 10 years.”

Family Tree Tours specializes in heritage travel to Germany, Switzerland, Ireland and England, providing a unique travel experience for those who are eager to know more about their family history and ancestral origins. Working with European partners who are expert genealogists, its services include help with research both in the U.S. and on location to make sure that every client actually visits their family’s hometown. The company offers a selection of escorted Group Guided Heritage Tours that focus on different regions of a country and immerse travelers in the culture.

Another brand is a Private Guided Heritage Tour, offering a personalized itinerary that can include all genealogical research contacts and appointments needed to research family history; a company-trained English-speaking guide who also acts as translator; a driver and minivan or small coach to visit sites of personal interest; and hotel and train reservations as required.

When we spoke with Wurth, she was just back from escorting a 10-day tour of northwest Germany. Participants visited towns around Osnabruck, touring castles, discovering the Detmold Living History Museum, and exploring the Bremerhaven Emigrant Museum. Travelers included a family—a grandmother introducing her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren to her ancestral land. On free days during the tour, it was time to go visit grandmother’s hometown. “Not only do I love the hunt and the challenge of finding ancestors,” says Wurth, “but equally rewarding is sharing the joy of finally putting a face to the names and places you’ve learned so much about.”

Family Tree Tours’ booklet, “10 Steps for a Successful Heritage Trip,” is chock-full of useful information for those planning ancestry travel. Consider just a few tips for clients to know before they go:

• Advise clients traveling on their own to schedule appointments at archives, libraries and civil offices in advance. Archives in Europe require an appointment and often a small fee for researching. If you don’t read the language or the old writing, it may be worth the time and money to hire a local researcher.

• Carry along copies—never originals—of old family photographs, baptisms or marriage records; take two copies of each important document.

• Also take a few “gift” items for meetings with relatives and for the guide who has helped you find your family, such as T-shirts with pop stars or sport teams for kids, a picture book of the U.S. or your hometown and region.

• For meeting relatives, prepare a small booklet with information and pictures of the “immigrant” and his and her descendants in the U.S. They are usually very interested in what happened to the family that left home.

The Ties That Bind
Academy Award-winning film director Francis Ford Coppola (the “Godfather” trilogy, for starters) is the grandson of a poor immigrant from Italy’s southern region of Basilicata. His grandfather, Agostino Coppola, left in 1904, never to return, although throughout his life, he fondly recalled to his American-based family the beauty of his native village, Bernalda.

Francis Ford Coppola made his first visit to the family hometown in 1962, and returned often over the years, finally deciding to put down roots of his own in his ancestral hometown by purchasing the 19th century Palazzo Margherita and turning it into a luxury hotel— a la leisure palazzo-style. And recently, under Coppola’s direction, another star is born, for the 9-suite Palazzo Margherita is, according to the filmmaker-owner, “set in magical gardens, a painted palace with frescoes on its ceilings and walls, palatial rooms with countless details, modern in terms of its systems, music and cinema available like hot and cold running water, yet the patina of its epoch preserved.”

Archived related articles (available on
A Taste of Tradition in Eastern Europe (July 2012)

contact information
Aer Lingus Vacation Store: (800) 495-1632;
Family Tree Tours: (888) 798-2208;
Palazzo Margherita:
TourCrafters: (800) 621-2259;

Context’s Family Programs
With its scholar-led walking tours of the world’s cultural capitals, Context Travel might not be top of mind when you’re making all the arrangements for a family client’s trip to Europe, but think again. Context Travel knows what it’s doing with its Family Programs. The company gets, as it says on its website, that, “Children learn

differently from adults. They ask different questions, notice different details, and connect with culture and art in altogether different ways than their parents.”

In fact, says the company’s director of media and publicity, Petulia Melideo, “When we decided to create our Family Programs we worked with museum educators, families, and our expert docents to create something that would be engaging, educational and fun for the whole family. All the family walks have been specifically designed, and all the docents leading the walks have been trained using VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies) and Inquiry Based learning methods. Agents booking with us can be sure we’ll create a customized experience that will be specifically designed for the family, and in order to do it just right, we ask clients to give us as much information as possible about the children and the family: what they are learning in school, what are their interests, what have they traveled for.”

And “customized” is the operative word. Melideo enthusiastically points to a family from Texas that first used Context Travel’s walks in Rome seven years ago. “The boy was only 10 and he had a passion for archaeology. We organized a special ‘archaeology experience’ for him and now, at the age of 17 he has enrolled for a degree in archaeology at university and is back in Italy doing a summer internship at an archaeology dig!”

The 3-hour Lion Hunt (Family Orientation) Walk in Venice is a good example of the type of unique experiences Context Travel can offer families. This orientation tour of Venice uses lions—the symbol of Venice—to trace a route in and around the Rialto and San Marco area. It begins with a visit to San Marco where participants count the lions (kids compete to see who finds most lions on the walk).  En-route to the Rialto bridge and colorful fish market, they’ll learn more about the fascinating city and search for emblems on the various buildings; this exact walk varies from docent to docent, as each will incorporate their hidden treasures to enhance client’s experience.

“Any agent recommending our tours is recommending a high-quality service,” emphasizes Melideo. “We design the walk for clients, offer them a 24/7 customer service line they can call with any questions or doubts, so the agent knows the clients are in good hands. And, of course, we offer agents a nice tiered commission scheme. This means that the more clients they book with us, the higher percentage commission they earn. The scheme is very easy and the commission is paid quarterly.” The website,, offers an “agents login” link.—Paloma Villaverde de Rico