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Trips to find your roots

Do you know where your ancestors came from? Maybe you have a few facts here and there that your parents or grandparents told you about –or maybe you’ve logged onto a website like Ancestry.com to do your own research.

Believe me; once you start filling out your family tree, it’s hard to stop. I recently got sucked in and spent more than five hours glued to my laptop tracing down my Swedish, French and Irish roots.
But let’s take this one step further. What if you could actually walk the same streets as your great-great grandfather, or see the home where you grandmother was born?

If this sounds like something you want to put on your bucket list – no problem – sites like the Aer Lingus Vacation Store have you covered.

“From a business standpoint, we know that there are about 47 million people in North America that claim some sort-of Irish heritage,” Ciaran Barry, director of promotions at the Aer Lingus Vacation Store, told FoxNews.com. “So there are a lot of people who want to travel to places where their family may have come from.”

In many cases, people go on vacation and just wing it when it comes to tracing down their ancestors. They think they’ll just figure it out when they get there. This might work for some people, but Barry and his colleagues had a better idea: The ‘Discover Your Roots’ Ireland vacation package.

“There’s a genealogy butler (Helen Kelly) that works out of the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, which is a five-star property right in the heart of the city, and as part of her service, she provides clients with an opportunity to sit with her for about an hour or so for a consultation, “ Barry said. “She’s actually one of the leading genealogists in Ireland.”

Prior to traveling, Aer Lingus sends you a questionnaire to fill out, so Kelly and her colleagues can get a jump start on their research. They ask you 10 questions ranging from the “name of the Irish born ancestor” to the “occupation of the ancestor” and the “religious denomination of the ancestor.”

And from there – the adventure begins.

“She puts you on the path of where to go and what archives to see,” Barry said. “So you gather all of this information and then you go out for the next five nights to stay at B&B’s.”

The ‘Discover Your Roots’ vacation package kicked off in the fall of 2011 with not only adventure in mind, but a real value for travelers. For example, if you fly out of JFK in New York City, the package starts at just over $1,000.00 and includes flights, one night at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, a one-hour consultation with the genealogy butler, vouchers for five nights at B&B’s and a car rental.

“It’s a compelling deal from the hook of the discovery side, but it’s also compelling from a price point,” Barry added.

Click here for more information about the ‘Discover Your Roots’ package.

The Ultimate Experience

If you’re looking for a once in a lifetime experience – and you have the time and the money to dedicate to the ultimate genealogy vacation – James Derheim, the founder of European Focus, is your guy.
Derheim, who was a Navy photojournalist at the start of the first Gulf War, was inspired to start his tour business after he came across one of his ancestral towns in Germany.

“I saw the sign and I literally stopped on the side of the road to call my mom from a payphone,” he told FoxNews.com. “I said, ‘Mom why does this town mean something to me? It’s just cooking in my mind.’ And she said, ‘Well, that’s where your great-grandfather got on a ship to come to America.’”

He visited that town and took photos and gathered souvenirs which he later presented to his grandfather on his 80th birthday. The unique gift struck such a nerve, he thought, “You know I could make this a business.”

That’s exactly what he did. In the beginning, he traveled to towns and villages all over Europe where his clients' ancestors were from and took photos, visited relatives and eventually sent the information back to them in the U.S.

After a while, this became so popular, his photography service turned into an exclusive private tours business.

“The hardest thing my clients have to do is get on a plane,” Derheim said. “We meet them at the airport and everything is mapped out. Clients get an itinerary in advance so they know where we are going and where we’re going to be staying. We probably put in about 100 hours of planning before we even meet the client.”

Just to give you an idea of how extensive his research is, Derheim told us about a mother and daughter who traveled with him to Germany last September.

“They contacted me a year in advance, giving me plenty of time to make contacts,” he said. “I went on scouting trips to this lady’s ancestral villages. There were about four or five villages that she wanted to visit. I went there myself and personally walked the streets, asked questions, found historians and people that could help us.”

As a result, Derheim was able to help this mother and daughter make connections with distant relatives. He took them to family farms, where they walked through ancient barns, and educated them about the methods of farming their ancestors did back in the day.

“We also got to visit one church in particular that was built in the 13th century where her ancestors were baptized,” he added. “They will have these memories for the rest of their lives.”

Since Derheim started his business, he has traveled to more than 2,000 towns and villages for his clients, gathering information from Germany, to the Czech and Slovak Republics, to Poland, Italy, England and Ireland.

Not only do clients get to enjoy the photos they took during the trip, a week or two after they return home, Derheim sends them a DVD of all the moments he captured during their quest to find out where they came from.

“This tour is about an experience,” Derheim said. “It’s about meeting people and using those connections to learn even more about your family.”

Click here for more information about European Focus Private Tours.

Learning more about family is a true passion of Helen Kelly’s – that genealogy butler from Ireland. I recently asked her why people are so fascinated with tracing their roots, and she said its’ all about the “innate desire to have identity and recognition.”

“It is therefore very important for all who have been distanced in time and space from the ancestral homestead, to close that gap and reconnect with the culture and landscape that cradled their ancestors,” she said.

As for my five-hour online journey – I discovered that my great-great grandfather (on my grandmother’s side) came from the county of Roscommon in Ireland, my great grandfather (on my grandfather’s side) was born in Sweden in 1883, and on my mom’s side, I learned that her family emigrated from Quebec to the U.S. through Vermont.

These are all fascinating details to me, but I can only imagine how much more real and tangible it would be if I were to visit their birthplaces and see first-hand where they came from.

First up on my list: Grabbing a pint of Guinness at a pub in the west region of Ireland. You never know, I might just run into a long-lost relative of my great-great grandfather John Hough. Now what could be better than that.

Other genealogy vacation websites include:
Discover the Italian Side of Life: a week in Basilicata with us
Ancestral Attic (Eastern European and Poland Genealogy Research and Heritage Tours)
Genealogy Pro