How to Trace Your Family History on a Heritage Trip, According to a Genealogist

Unlock the past with a trip based on your ancestry.

DNA test kits make for popular gifts for any family member looking to learn more about their roots, but you can take those lessons in genealogy one step further by booking travel based on the results.

In an episode of the Travel + Leisure podcast, Let's Go Together, host Kellee Edwards interviewed genealogist Nicka Sewell-Smith to discuss DNA testing and how it can provide inspiration for an upcoming trip.

A Cameroon village road, the bridge and skyline in Tulsa and a Chicago train going through the city
Genealogist Nicka Sewell-Smith has traced her roots using DNA to Cameroon, the United States South, and Chicago. Dag Sundberg/Getty Images; Sean Pavone/Getty Images; Getty Images

In the episode, "Unlocking the Past Through DNA Heritage Travel," Sewell-Smith shares how DNA research has unlocked more opportunities for people to not only learn about their own history, but also explore and connect with those ancestral locations.

"DNA, it's completely revolutionized genealogy and family history," says Sewell-Smith.

Sewell-Smith has explored her own family history thanks to DNA research. Some of her heritage travel has taken her to locations across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas as she researched her own family history. On the podcast, she says her family also has roots outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, and eventually left the American South for Chicago. Tracing her roots even further back, Sewell-Smith has also visited the African countries of Cameroon and Benin.

"It's almost like that deep inner part of us starts to speak to the part of us that we didn't even know was there," she says on the show. "It's almost like you just remember what was there when you didn't recall it before you got there."

She also shared some expert tips for anyone who is planning a trip based on their own heritage and DNA results.

Let go of preconceived ideas.

Often, Sewell-Smith says, people's ideas of a certain culture can be different than how things are in reality. The local food might not be the same as what you're used to at home, for instance. She points out that in many rural areas, even across the United States, you can't expect rideshare companies like Uber to operate, and so your travel plan should account for these types of regional differences.

"We can sometimes go into these places and our perception, or how we think, is different than the folks that are there," Sewell-Smith says on the show.

Check travel requirements.

If your DNA results inspire you to go abroad, make sure you have the basics covered before rushing into a trip. Sewell-Smith says to make sure you have all the necessary travel requirements, such as visas, immunizations, and your passport. What's extra important is having enough time in advance of the trip to get all the proper clearances and documents.

Especially with COVID-19, she says, some people might not want to travel on a plane and would prefer to drive or even take a train within the United States or their own home country. Sewell-Smith emphasizes not overlooking heritage travel right in your own backyard within your country.

Hire a local guide.

Regardless of where you are traveling, finding someone local with knowledge of the area's history will greatly enhance your trip, according to Sewell-Smith.

"You really want to have a great person traveling with you who … can speak to aspects of life that folks don't know," she says.

Even in the United States, Sewell-Smith says, a local guide can help identify discrepancies between what you might have been taught versus what actually happened in a location, especially when it comes to history surrounding something like the transatlantic slave trade, and the lack of recorded history many Black families have because of that.

Research the region ahead of time.

DNA testing might reveal roots in areas and countries that might not be the easiest or most popular travel destinations. Sewell-Smith says to research the region and make sure you understand the political and social climate first to avoid potential issues and remain safe.

Embrace the local lifestyle.

Overscheduling your visit or staying in your comfort zone are definitely things to avoid during your travels, Sewell-Smith says. She recommends eating at local establishments and walking through local markets to shop and embed yourself in the culture and people of the area.

"I wanted to be immersed," she says. "I wanted to meet people who were from those places and just talk to them, as well as taking [in] the cultural sights and sounds."

Wherever your DNA results lead, planning a heritage travel trip is a unique way to explore your family ancestry and discover your global roots.

23andMe Ancestry Kit

23andMe DNA Testing Kit
Courtesy of Amazon

To buy:, $99

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