Whether your goal is a pilgrimage to Grandma's birthplace or a re-enactment of an ancestor's cross-continent trek to freedom, there's no family trip more meaningful or surprise-filled than a roots adventure. Here, a guide to get you going.

1 Interview your oldest relatives Try to determine where, when, and how your ancestors lived; be sure to ask about long-lost cousins to look up, as well as places of worship and burial grounds worth visiting.

2 Scan genealogy magazines Family Tree (www.familytreemagazine.com) is packed with Web-surfing strategies and news about living-history sites, such as pioneer homesteads and immigration museums; Heritage Quest (www.heritagequest.com) and Everton's Family History Magazine (www.everton.com) delve into more rarefied topics—analyzing Scandinavian tax records, for example, or tracing the careers of Civil War surgeons.

3 Dive into genealogical databases These are extraordinarily useful sources for ancestral information, and new ones come on-line daily. A possible bonus: Connecting with distant kin who are researching the same family tree.

All of these sites are free, except as noted.

  • www.ellisisland.org
  • Good For: Names of 12 million immigrants who passed through the island's portals between 1892 and 1954. Downloadable ship manifests indicate passengers' hometowns, professions, and names and addresses of relatives in America and the Old Country— so you can pinpoint who came from where, and who stayed behind.
  • Caveat: Misspellings abound, largely owing to ship clerks' illegible handwriting. A free search engine lets you browse by various spellings.

Good For: The Internet's most comprehensive and user-friendly indexes of censuses (mainly American), birth and death records, old newspapers, biographical dictionaries, and family trees.
Caveat: Full access costs $189.80 per year.

Good For: Birth, death, and marriage records for all faiths worldwide, provided free by the Mormons (who also run 3,400 family-history libraries around the world).
Caveat: Aside from Western Europe, international coverage can be skimpy.

Good For: Links to more than 130,000 genealogical Web sites, from those offering advice on selecting family-tree software to the home pages of research centers for California Mennonites or Jordanian royalty.
Caveat: The site's not easily searchable by individual names.

4 Choose a guide Domestically, you can easily go it alone, but if you're traveling overseas, think about hiring a specialty travel agency. The firm will help with advance research and then provide an escort on your trip, saving you the frustration of seeking out streets that no longer exist. They'll tailor trips to families, setting aside time for adults to bond with newfound cousins as the kids blow off steam at folkfests or castle ramparts. Itineraries can be customized for any age group, and prices vary enormously depending on your idea of a dream journey: a drive around your ancestral village can cost as little as $20 an hour, while a weeklong tour of every battlefield your forebears fought on can run into the thousands.

  • Ancestral Journeys of Scotland
  • www.ancestral-journeys.com; 44-1383/720-522
  • REGION: Scotland
  • SPECIALTY: Trips for families with Scottish ancestors, whether clan leaders or coal miners. The native-born guides don't mind braking for golf courses or Highland games, either.
  • FOR KIDS: Sheepdog trials, with border-collie puppies learning to round up lambs, and overnights at a castle with secret passageways.
  • Black Diamond Summit Tourswww.bdsummit.com; 800/551-1213
  • REGIONS: Africa, the Caribbean, the Southern United States
  • SPECIALTY: Custom trips geared to African-Americans interested in their heritage; can include stops at slave-ship loading points, sugar plantation ruins, and civil rights museums.
  • FOR KIDS: Beaches, game parks, and open-air markets.
  • Discovering Roots Society of Poznan
  • www.man.poznan.pl/~bielecki/roots.htm; 48-61/868-1696
  • REGION: Poland
  • SPECIALTY: Four young scholars in the Poznan region, formerly a Prussian province, cater to descendants of numerous ethnic groups and nationalities (Poles, Germans, Jews) on tours of genealogy-specific sites and Poland's under-appreciated medieval landmarks.
  • FOR KIDS: Fortresses built during the Crusades and World War II; narrow-gauge railway rides on steam trains.
  • Gentourswww.gentours.com; 907/868-1862
  • REGION: England
  • SPECIALTY: Andy Copping, an Alaska-based Brit, brings a half-dozen groups a year to his homeland. He carries a laptop loaded with genealogy databases for heritage enthusiasts and also happily accommodates clients who'd rather just roam churchyards or linger at teahouses.
  • FOR KIDS: Jousting tournaments, aircraft museums, and farms that raise endangered livestock breeds.
  • Irish Cultural Connections
  • www.irishculturalconnections.com; 353-47/86363 or 353-87/266-7694
  • REGION: Ireland
  • SPECIALTY: Plunkett McKenna, a County Monaghan—based descendant of medieval chieftains, helps clients track down ancestral farmsteads and envision the 19th-century famine conditions that drove emigrants to America.
  • FOR KIDS: Primeval bogs and moors, royal Celts' boulder tombs, and replicas of Stone Age encampments.
  • P.A.T.H. Finders International
  • www.pathfinders.cz; 420-2/5794-0113
  • REGION: Czech Republic and Slovakia
  • SPECIALTY: Three dozen researchers—overseen by Marie and Tom Zahn (she's Czech; he's Austro-Hungarian-American)—scour centuries-old deed registries, reunite families over rustic banquets, and lead clients to crystal-ware factories, Roman ruins, and hot springs.
  • FOR KIDS: Dance festivals, horseback excursions, and boat rides through Moravian caves with underground rivers and traces of Neanderthal settlements.
  • ShtetlSchleppers
  • www.jewishgen.org/shtetlschleppers; 281/535-2200
  • REGIONS: Central and Eastern Europe
  • SPECIALTY: JewishGen, a nonprofit genealogical research center with hundreds of overseas contacts, develops custom travel plans and leads weeklong group tours (including ones to rarely touristed spots in Belarus and the Ukraine) that cover mainstream attractions, such as Baroque streetscapes, as well as Jewish neighborhoods.
  • FOR KIDS: Museums of Jewish culture, reborn yeshivas, and kosher feasts.
  • Emilio Terrazzino
  • www.papiro.net/pubblicita/emilio/home.html; 39-0922/414-893
  • REGION: Sicily
  • SPECIALTY: Journeys under the guidance of a Sicilian-born, Cleveland-raised genealogist to parish and town record halls, cemeteries where gravestones bear portraits of the deceased, and ancient temples on the beach.
  • FOR KIDS: Local pistachios, ferry rides to the shores of the Aeolian Islands, and peeks into the volcanic depths of Mount Etna.
  • The Ties Program
  • www.adoptivefamilytravel.com; 800/398-3676
  • REGIONS: Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, for families with children adopted from those areas
  • SPECIALTY: Two-week group tours for adopters and adoptees to schools, orphanages, marketplaces, and cultural wonders (the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, China's terra-cotta armies). Occasionally, meetings with birth parents can be arranged.
  • FOR KIDS: Soccer and cricket games with local schoolchildren; rides on elephants, llamas, or rickshaws.

Tools to pack: Handheld scanners for copying documents and photos; laptops loaded with vintage census reports and maps; SASE's to leave with archivists in case data turns up after you've gone.