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December 24, 2003 -- Around two millennia ago, the story goes, a baby boy was born in a stable in the Middle East, because there was no room at the local inns. He would go on to do great things.

About 135 years before Mary stilled her son's first cries, a bunch of her ancestors raised a revolt against their Syrian overlords, using an improbably small amount of oil to keep a lamp alight for eight days.

Israel, the West Bank and Gaza are now a land of strife. Jesus was born in what is now the West Bank; the US government prohibits its own employees from traveling there because of the civil unrest, so we're not about to tell you to go there.

Depending on your comfort level, though, you can still take a trip to Israel proper. The miserable state of the Israeli economy is to your advantage as a tourist; experts tell us that published prices for hotel rooms are essentially irrelevant, and you'll be fawned over by hotel and museum staff. (Well, as much as Israelis fawn over anyone; they're a famously gruff bunch.)

We have a very comprehensive update on hotels, restaurants and the general situation in Israel at www.frommers.com/destinations/article.cfm?destid=88&articleid=1242. Recently, two changes in the air travel situation have cropped up, too.

El Al, the Israeli airline, is running two special fares to Israel right now. If you're going to fly to Israel, you might as well fly the world's safest and most secure airline, the only airline on Earth with armed air marshals aboard every flight. Book both El Al specials with your local travel agent or at www.elal.co.il.

From Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, El Al has an excellent fare of $799 plus tax roundtrip. You must leave LA on a Monday between Jan. 12 and March 22 and return on a Monday, Tuesday or Thursday. You must buy your ticket by Dec. 31, and stay in Israel between 6 and 21 days.

Couples flying together get a great deal with reduced companion fares. Flying from New York, the first passenger pays $699 and the second $499, an average of $599. Flying from Chicago, the average goes up to $699 for two. From Miami, two people will pay an average of $719 each. These companion fares are available through Dec. 31 for travel between Jan. 18 and March 25. You must stay in Israel between 6 and 21 days, and both passengers must travel on the same flights. These fares are a good $100 below other published fares we've seen.

Israel is one area where a good travel agent can be a huge help in finding safe and affordable accommodations. For a list of Israel specialist travel agents, check out www.goisrael.com/planningyourtrip/findcounselor.asp on the official Israeli tourism site.

Not a Holiday, Just a Box Office Hit

For the past few years, the arrival of the holiday season has also meant the arrival of a new Lord of the Rings blockbuster. The saga of Middle Earth ends this year (until someone starts producing The Hobbit, we guess) -- and if you haven't seen it yet, it's one heck of a spectacle.

You may not find elves and dwarves in New Zealand, but you'll certainly recognize the landscape. The plains of Rohan and the rolling hills of the Shire are pure Kiwi glory. It's high season right now (summer in NZ), so you're not going to find the spectacular fares you might see in May or September. For now, the best deal is from Air New Zealand. They're offering an $850 fare from LA to Auckland, as long as you fly in and out on specific dates in January. You must depart LA on January 2, 4, 5, 6 or 7, and fly back on January 20, 21, 23, 25, and 26. You must also buy your ticket today for this fare. For full details and to book, go to www.airnz.com.

For a guide to Middle Earth locations in New Zealand, see http://erequest.airnz.co.nz/lotr_us.htm. For our full guide to New Zealand, see www.frommers.com/destinations/newzealand.