How To Make Family Trips Feel Like Vacations

Taking a trip with your kids usually doesn’t feel like a vacation. It feels more like lugging all your stuff (including your cranky children) to an unfamiliar place where you’re forced to cook in a strange kitchen that lacks both sharp knives and common pantry items like salt and pepper. Or you have to deal with your kids in restaurants where they can’t sit still and refuse the most basic of kiddie-menu items, which never look exactly like they do at home.

Thinking about taking your kids’ grandparents along for the ride? Sure, it sounds circle-of-life-y, but as it turns out, your folks get just as cranky as your kids when they’re taken out of their routine. In other words, you could wind up spending a ton of time, effort, and money on very little relaxation.

For more than 50 years, my parents have been vacationing in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (often called “Amish Country”) where they love poking around shops, buying fabric for my mom’s many sewing projects, and loading up on fresh-picked vegetables. My mom rhapsodizes all year long about the bacon, the eggs, the bread. (Another theory: She’s just really into breakfast.)

And so, despite everything I just said about the perils of multigenerational family vacations, I recently decided to take a trip with my folks and my kids (ages 3 and 6) so that the former could introduce the latter to a place they love so much. Along the way, I discovered that all it takes is a few road trip rules to ensure that your family vacation is high on enjoyment and low on stress.

Traffic in Lancaster.
Rule #1: Opt for a roomy ride.
Unfortunately, two days before we leave for Lancaster, my father says he isn’t feeling up for travel and decides to stay home. Instead, we invite along my mother-in-law, since there is plenty of room in our rented Chevy Tahoe. Piling in two grandmas, two kids, my husband, and me is no problem. It also comes with heated and cooled seats and individualized climate control, crucial since every person in the car has a different ideal ambient temperature.

On the drive up, my mother points out every horse, sheep, cow, and chicken we pass while exhorting my kids to enjoy the scenery. “Look, girls! It’s the rolling hills of Pennsylvania,” she says once a minute for an hour as my kids barely glance up from their tablets. It’s really not much different from when my sister and I fought in the backseat, half-listening as my mother chattered from the front about … the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. Only we didn’t have electronic devices.

The rolling hills of Pennsylvania, as seen from the observation tower/former grain silo of The Red Caboose Motel.
Rule #2: Food-related activities keep all ages entertained.
Everyone loves chocolate (and if you don’t love chocolate, that’s fine, because it means there’s more for me). For as long as I can remember, my mom has returned home from her Amish Country trips with bags of Wilbur Buds — the smooth, creamy precursor to Hershey’s Kisses — so we’re all excited for our first stop: the Wilbur Chocolate Factory. But when we arrive at the factory in downtown Lititz (which bills itself as the coolest small town in America), we are sad to see that Cargill sold the building and it’s being turned into (sigh) luxury apartments. Luckily, there’s a new Wilbur retail store across the street that does have free samples, so we still get to nibble away while deciding just how much chocolate to buy. By the way, Hershey’s is headquartered about 40 minutes away and has Hersheypark, with concerts, amusement rides, and a hotel/spa. I feel like that’s its own special undertaking and not one we can tackle on this trip.

There’s also something for everyone at the flea market! About a half-hour away is the Green Dragon Market, open every Friday, year-round. There’s a flea market, butcher stalls, candy shops, ice cream, fresh produce, arts and crafts sellers, and even a small animal auction — nearly anything you’d want to buy is available. The kids enjoy browsing tables of soaps and bath bombs. My mom buys some fresh vegetables and searches in vain for the perfect new socks. My husband snags a bird house. My mother-in-law gets a bag of apples and some light-up toys my kids don’t need but make them deliriously happy. And I eat a brisket-stuffed pretzel made by a group of Mennonite bakers that is so good, my eyes roll back in my head.

And who could forget ice cream? I grew up on Turkey Hill ice cream. My parents always had a gallon in the freezer, and the Turkey Hill Experience (free for military and kids 3 and under; around $10 for everyone else) is definitely on our must-do list. It’s not a factory tour. Rather, its purpose-built interactive exhibits take guests through the ice cream-making experience. We spend about 90 minutes exploring the various areas: playing a video game where we blast away bad bacteria, designing our own ice cream flavors (including packaging and creating a commercial for it), and playing in a ball pit that is supposed to represent something but I suspect is just a good excuse for the littles to expend some of the energy from consuming free iced tea and ice cream samples.

Then it’s time for the Taste Lab, so we head downstairs. This $5.45-per-person add-on allows you to build your own flavor, so after designing our own ice cream flavors upstairs, it’s time to see if they actually taste good in real life. Each person gets a pint of vanilla base, then adds flavoring, mix-ins, and a flavor swirl from the tons of available options. I create a lackluster combo of mint, chocolate cookies, a couple of gummy bears, and a caramel swirl, which I have no problem finishing but I doubt would ever be a commercial success.

Rule #3: Got boring adult stuff to do? Divide and conquer.
Back in Lititz, my husband and mother-in-law head over to the Sturgis Pretzel Bakery, where they learn how to twist pretzels and get a free soft pretzel for their $3.75 entrance fee (kids 4-12 $2.75; under 4 is free). My mother-in-law also picks up a bag of horse-and-buggy-shaped pretzels that are downright adorable. Meanwhile, my mom and I pop down the street to the Matthew 25 thrift shop. “For years, we’d walk past it, thinking it was a high-end boutique!” she says. Once she realized that it was actually filled with beautiful displays of clothing and household goods at amazing prices, she makes it a point to return whenever she’s in the area. And it’s the same as it ever was. I snap up a linen dress for $6 and my mom buys a few pairs of jeans because the only ones she owns date back to the ’70s.