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Tips from the Country's Best Family Travel Agents

When Mike and Ellen MacNair opened MacNair Travel in 1989, they were both in their late twenties and already veterans of the travel industry. Having worked in sales and management for airlines, hotels, and tour operators, they wanted to put their combined expertise to work, planning perfect escape routes, particularly for families. The plan worked: MacNair Travel now has 48 employees in two locations and is the fifth largest travel agency in the Washington, D.C., area. And the MacNairs themselves have an in-house committee of trip testers: their kids Meghan, 14, Conor, 11, and James, 8.

"People are constantly asking me, 'Where should I go?' " says Mike. "I tell them that my dream destination isn't necessarily theirs. They need to sit down with their family and answer two questions: What has to happen over the course of our next vacation to make it amazing?What have been our best and worst trips, and why?From there, the brainstorming begins." But before calling a meeting with your clan to discuss vacations past and future, consider Mike's own family finds:

Organized Adventure "Last year, we went on a Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyon hiking and biking trip with the California-based outfitter Backroads. We got to stay in national park lodges (which are hard to book on your own), and the food was healthy and fabulous. One night, the tour leaders kicked out all the adults and had a pizza party just for the kids. We all had a blast." (www.backroads.com)

Livin' La Vida Española "In the summer, we took a trip to Sanxenxo and Portonovo in Galicia, a region of northern Spain. We lived like locals: we stayed at a friend's house and spent our days at the neighborhood café. The kids made friends and got to run around by themselves so much more than they can do at home—our daughter even went to the disco. At night, we all reconvened for a great meal; Spanish restaurants are very welcoming to kids. We all loved the steamed mussels, paella, calamari, and tortillas (Spanish omelettes). Of course, what the kids liked the best were the little things: the carnival in tiny Portonovo, playing soccer on the beach, and drinking lemon Fanta."

The Overseas Leap "London is the ideal first foreign-city trip for American families. To orient yourselves, I recommend taking a guided double-decker tour. Pick out your favorite sights, and use the second day to explore them. For a trip out of the city, consider a Harry Potter-themed excursion with British Tours. It's smart to book theater and other tickets before you go." (www.londontheatrebookings.com; www.londoneye.com; www.the­originaltour.com; www.britishtours.com)

A Weekend Well Spent "In between school vacation times, it's fun to steal a long weekend away. I suggest a sporting-event-related road trip. How about a Green Bay Packer's football game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin?Even the teens in your group will be happy." (http://www.packers.com/lambeau_field)

The Case for Costa Rica "It's easy to get to and has so many parts: rain forest, beaches, jungles, monkeys, coffee farms. We went during winter break—we used Backroads again because we had such a great experience with them last year. We traveled all over-two highlights were a canopy tour through the Rainmaker Reserve and a white-water rafting trip on the Savegre River. At the end of the tour, we caught our breath at the Punta Islita resort, located in a secluded beachside spot on the Pacific coast." (www.backroads.com)

Teens Afloat "The amount of food kids need to consume can get really expensive—especially with teenage boys. Take them on a cruise where you won't get nickled and dimed for every snack. They might object to the idea at first, but the minute you say, 'Meet us back at the cabin at midnight,' they'll loosen up. For food, our kids' favorite is Norwegian Cruise Lines. For activities, it's Royal Caribbean, which has climbing walls on all ships and skating rinks on many." (www.ncl.com; www.royalcaribbean.com)

Secret D.C. "The next time you're in Washington, ditch the Smithsonian museums for a day and rent bikes. We live just outside the city, and we always tell visiting families to take a ride on one of the area's great bike trails. Our two favorites: the Mount Vernon trail which goes along the Potomac River to George Washington's estate, and the C & O Canal tow path, which runs parallel to the old canal." (www.waba.org)

Pre-Departure Tip "We always take a limousine to the airport. It forces our chronically-late family to be on time, and the vacation starts immediately. The kids just go crazy when the car arrives, and I relax as soon as we pull away from the house. On the way back, the limo is less necessary; we usually get a ride from a friend or catch a cab."

What to Do With All Those Travel Trinkets "In addition to getting one special gift, every family member is allotted a souvenir budget for the whole trip. If someone doesn't spend all of the money, he or she gets it in cash when we return. And as for the souvenirs the kids just could not live without, we make Christmas ornaments out of them. Mini Eiffel Towers and wooden Beefeaters look great hanging on a tree."

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