Who’s Who in Travel: Kelly Shea!

Interview with Kelly Shea

This month, we interviewed Kelly Shea, Travel Agent Extraordinaire, for the Who’s Who in Travel column.
Kelly has received dozens of accolades as one of the World’s Top Travel Agents, from being selected for Travel + Leisure’s “A-List” to being recognized as one of Virtuoso’s best agents.

kelly shea interview

Kelly with the Chief of a Masai Village in Amboseli. She facilitated a delivery of backpacks and supplies that were sent by a client to this village.
World-famous celebrity chefs, TV stars, Forbes 500-listed global shopping magnates, call Kelly to create one-of-a-kind, exceptional trips.  As founder and owner of Kelly Shea Travels, she designs customized travels keeping her worldwide clients needs and interests top of mind.

kelly shea interview

Gorilla trekking Rwanda

Her specialty? Greece, Turkey, Africa, and major European destinations.

Find out what inspires Kelly to travel, about her favorite destinations, top places to visit now, and how a travel agent can make your trip extra special, in our interview with her below.



Question: Who and/or what inspired your passion for travel?

Kelly Shea: One of my best friends from school (grade and high school) and I dreamed of traveling to Europe back in 1977. We sat down and figured out how long we could be gone, what cities and countries we wanted to visit, rail passes, cheap hotels, how much money we had (or didn’t have) and it was daunting. We had lots of imagination but little money and didn’t know how we were going to make the money stretch…………that is until I saw a poster on the bulletin board at my college. The poster that I STILL have and CHERISH!

kelly shea interview

Kelly’s first year as a tour guide on Hydra 1981 – Flashdance Look!
The name of the company was International Student Exchange and they were based out of Urbana Illinois. The poster advertised EIGHT WEEKS in Europe visiting 12 countries for $1398.00! This price included your hotel, transportation between those countries, 2 meals a day and museum entrances to places like the Louvre, the Uffizi, a Strauss Waltz evening, Tivoli Gardens, a gondola ride in Venice……….you name it, it was incredible.

My “friend” bailed out on me 2 months before we were to leave in June and I almost changed my mind but I’m so grateful I had some prodding from my parents and my Grandmother who’d funded part of my trip. The Summer of 78 changed me forever and I’ve never stopped traveling since. I’m just much pickier now!

Question: What are the 3 favorite places you’ve visited recently? and why?

Kelly Shea:
1.  Nepal:  Last year was a memorable travel year for me. Really over the top. In March I spent 2 weeks in Nepal and every day was better than the next. Kathmandu was frenetic but in a mesmerizing way. It was so authentic, the traffic, the smells, the spinning prayer wheels, the red clothed monks, honestly I think every experience there touched my heart. I loved the under developed countryside, the daily prayer rituals, the people themselves were so remarkably kind and thoughtful.

kelly shea interview

Kongde Ri in the Khumbu region 2 miles from Namche Bazaar with Mt. Everest in the background

We traveled to the most extraordinary destinations within the country, the Himalayas were so much more dazzling than I’d ever expected. Landing at the crazy airport at Lukla, the gateway to the Himalayas, took my breath away, literally. With a runway just over 1800 feet long with a 12% pitch that ends smack dab at the base of a mountain. I don’t do well with small aircraft after nearly losing my life, I thought anyway, on one in Africa back in 2002. So this trip really pushed my emotional and physical boundaries as every leg of the journey was on a small, fixed wing aircraft or a helicopter plus I was still on the road to recovery after an accident in Croatia 7 months before so I was still moving slowly. Spending the afternoon having tea in Lukla with the daughter of the first Nepali woman to summit Everest was incredible, the photos of her Mother Passang Lhamu Sherpa, old photos of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay all over her tea shop/restaurant along with so many other explorers. What an experience.

Another day we landed the heli in a field outside the walls of Lo Manthang, the remote capital of the Kingdom of Lo founded in 1380 where we had coffee with the Crown Prince and walked through a village that is just 30 miles from the Tibetan border.

kelly shea interview

Kelly and Ang Tshiring Sherpa, the Owner of Yeti/Tara Airlines (in Jomson leaving for Mustang)

He pointed to the mountains just a few miles away and told us how his Grandfather assisted the Dali Lama when he escaped across the Tibet/Nepal border and allowed him to hideout in the mountains, switching horses as he made his way to India. I hung on every word and kept thinking, “little ol’ me from Indiana” in a part of the world that almost NO one ever sees. I left Nepal a mere 3 weeks before the tragic earthquake on April 25th which shook that country and also shook my soul. I was so lucky to have been there and had the experience of seeing the beautiful temples that were there before the quake. I didn’t want to leave and tears rolled down my cheeks as I left for the airport. Nepal is a place that I will return to again and again.
2.  Bhutan was the next favorite, only 5 months after Nepal. I think I must have been blessed by Buddha to have been able to return to another remarkably spiritual place so soon after Nepal. Bhutan was green, lush, rushing rivers, meandering and friendly cows walking the streets, children running to meet me and talking to me in perfect English.

kelly shea interview

Kelly at Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan

Air so fresh and clear that it made you close your eyes and wish you could bring it home for others to inhale so they could understand the purity of the country. You just have to go there yourself and experience the unique culture and their vision for the future of its people. We could learn many lessons from King Jigme Wanchuk.

kelly shea interview

3.  Bosnia Herzegovina:  The 3rd would be Bosnia Herzegovina, another destination where I felt like a real explorer. The city of Sarajevo was absolutely beautiful, the 16th century Ottoman frontier town of Mostar with the bridge that was originally designed by Sinan, (rebuilt after it was blown up at the end of the horrific 4 year civil war), were destinations I really knew little about and people back home thought I was crazy for going there. This is a country where ethnic cleansing attacks raged through the streets of Sarajevo and the outlying countryside for almost 4 years and this was in MY lifetime. Shocking really.

After later reading books about that war and then looking at that beautiful city now, makes me again wonder about man’s inhumanity to man. “Those who fail to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” And we do, again and again.

Question: How did you become one of the World’s Top Travel Agents?

Kelly Shea: It’s easy, I do what I love (travel) and love what I do, sharing my love of travel with those who want to explore the world around them. Travel changes your life and when you are as passionate about travel as I am, you can’t help but pass on that emotion on to those whose journeys you are planning and they know it.

Question: If stranded on an island, which island would you choose? and why?

Kelly Shea: This won’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me……..the island of Hydra in Greece. An island that changed my life, made me push myself when I was not very comfortable in my own skin. Being a foreigner in a strange place taught me to step outside my comfort zone, to learn to eat food I’d never eaten before, to live in a place where locals spoke little English and to make total strangers into lifelong friends.

Hydra was part of my 55 day tour of Europe, in between Italy and the former Yugoslavia. Of course there is always the story about romance when you travel, this was no different. I ended up returning a year later and eventually ended up being a tour guide for the company I had traveled there with in 1978. I’ve returned to Hydra almost every summer for the last 38 years and when I’m not there I remember those long summers on the island and all of the wonderful memories made.

Question: Where do you think will be the next top destinations to visit?

Kelly Shea: I think travelers now are searching for authentic destinations, more off the beaten path places where none of their other friends have been before. I’d like to think with travel to Croatia and Montenegro having recently become more popular, I hope those looking for something different will consider other parts of the former Yugoslavia like Bosnia Herzegovina. I think Bhutan will become more popular, maybe because they allow so few tourists to travel there, it makes it more intriguing.

Question: What are your Top 3 suggestions for travelers when choosing a trip?

Kelly Shea:  Your basic interests, your expectations, your budget and the type of comfort level you are expecting. If you want to see and be seen then don’t go to Sarajevo, go to St. Tropez. If want to feel in control at all times and don’t want to be inconvenienced in any way, perhaps traveling isn’t for you.

Question: What advice do give your clients when traveling?

Kelly Shea:

  • Be open minded.
  • Take 50% of what you originally put in your suitcase.
  • Pay $100.00 and get Global Entry, it’s worth every penny.
  • Be prepared to have something go wrong, it will.
  • You catch more bees with honey than you will with vinegar, be nice and smile often.
  • Don’t be the ugly American. You are no more important than the man behind the desk at the hotel.
  • Be willing to change plans.
  • Never stop wondering or wandering. It’s in our DNA.

Question: Why should travelers use a travel agent? And does it costs more?

Kelly Shea: First of all, I know more than they do and I am better connected in the world of travel than they are. It’s my job and my passion. I am part of the Virtuoso travel network, an invitation only network of over 11,000 luxury travel advisors that generate over 15 BILLION dollars annually in travel sales making me a powerful source to be reckoned with in this industry. I have connections with the world’s best travel suppliers, relationships with the best hotels and can offer my clients amenities and services that others only dream about. I travel the world, every chance I get and I learn about the destination inside and out. I know my clients preferences and can give them the best option for wherever they want to travel and it results in an exceptional experience that they will remember for many years to come. I am like a valued investment manager who my clients entrust with managing one of their most precious assets, their leisure time.

Does it cost more? Not in the long run. Yes I charge a consultation fee to meet with a client and go over his needs and expectations for the upcoming trip. My time and expertise is worth every penny I charge and they will agree with that when they return from a trip of a lifetime. In most instances, I can make my client an “instant VIP” with complimentary room upgrades, impossible to get restaurant reservations and into behind the scene places that they can’t get themselves. That’s why I was listed for 9 years running as one of Travel and Leisure’s top travel advisors and that was no easy feat!


Kelly Shea, Kelly Shea Travels Inc

Website:  www.kellysheatravels.com

Email:  Kelly@kellysheatravels.com

Direct:  317.805.5770

Fax: 317.805.5771

  • Virtuoso Member 
  • Specialist in the Art of Travel
  • Travel + Leisure A-list Travel Specialist

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