Every year hundreds of thousands of people take cruises departing from ports like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Port Canaveral, Port Everglades, Jacksonville and San Diego. These cruises can range from several hours to several months. Cruise lines like Carnival, Norwegian, Disney and Holland America make millions of extra dollars by providing extensive onshore tour packages called excursions. Activities on excursions include walking tours, trolley rides, and visits to a beach or museum. Some excursions are more adventurous like ATV safaris, horseback riding, parasailing and helicopter tours.

Cruise lines spend a lot of effort and money to lure their passengers into buying shore excursions directly from them, often before the ship even departs. Cruise ship websites offer package deals with discounts, transportation and other specials.

Onshore accidents can occur on these excursions; most frequently when transporting passengers from the ship to the venue. Many exotic locations have narrow roads, without guardrails that were not designed for the massive tour buses used by excursion companies. Recently twenty Princess Cruises passengers were injured and one killed when their “Tropical Forest Hike and Beach” excursion in Tortola went off the road and flipped over.

Injuries and death can also occur during the activity itself. For instance, a 68-year old man, died this week while snorkeling off the coast of Dominica on a Royal Caribbean “Champagne Snorkeling” excursion. He apparently just stopped breathing and died on his way to the hospital. As a lawyer who sues cruise ships for injuries; I wonder what effort was made to revitalize him and how long it took to transport him to the emergency room.

Frequently, passengers believe that buying the tour directly from the cruise line, guarantees quality, safety and legal protection in the event of a tragedy. This is usually not the case. Cruise Lines are notorious for evading legal responsibility when a passenger is injured or killed on a shore excursion.

Buried deep in the fine print of every excursion contract is complex legal language claiming that the tour company is an “independent contractor.” This means that the cruise line does not own or operate the onshore company. In addition, cruise ships use other legal disclaimers to insulate themselves from liability. These carefully drafted contracts have allowed the majority of United States Federal Courts to uniformly dismiss law suits against cruise lines for off-ship injuries. When this happens, victims and their families are often forced to try to file suit in remote jurisdictions which may not have a legal system that recognizes personal injury cases.

The best way to protect your family when taking a shore excursion is to remember these safety tips:

1. Do some independent research. Don’t rely only on the ship’s website or the onboard sales people. Go online or read a travel book for more information about available tours. In addition, each port will have its own tourism bureau and web site that can provide you more details.

2. Check Out the Locals. Whether it is cycling or scuba diving, each port will have a local club that can tell you “insider info” as to where the best rides and beaches are and how to get there.

3. Ask Your Friends. Social media is an often untapped source of information. Post an inquiry on your Facebook or LinkedIn account asking for advice for the upcoming ports, such as: “Our cruise stops in St. Kitts for the day, any suggestions?”

4. Third Party Excursions. Barry and Julie Karp own their own excursion company. They provide valuable insight on virtually every port. Their site Shore Trips can give you info that the ships won’t.

5. Ask Your Uncle Sam. Most Americans traveling abroad do not know about the U.S. Service of Consular Affairs Smart Traveler Abroad Program (STEP). STEP allows you to enter information about your upcoming trip abroad so that the Department of State can be of help in an emergency. It also gives Americans the latest travel safety information from the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

Cruises are a lot of fun. For me the best part is exploring exotic ports and I encourage everyone to get off the ship, but to do your homework in advance and be safe.