Getting to Minnesota
Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport (MSP), conveniently located right on the edge of the Twin Cities, is one of the Midwest’s largest hubs. Airports in Rochester and Duluth also have a handful of flights to other states and Hector International Airport in Fargo, North Dakota, can also be convenient.
To find a good fare to Minnesota, it’s important to know that Delta—which merged with the once Minnesota-based Northwest Airlines—accounts for around 80 percent of all flights, and thus holds a monopoly on many routes. Price pressure from discount airlines has alleviated this somewhat in recent years.
Small airports in Bemidji, Brainerd, Hibbing, International Falls, St. Cloud, and Thief River Falls have regular propjet service to and from Minneapolis with Northwest. Fares from Minneapolis to elsewhere in the state aren’t cheap, unless bought as part of a connecting flight.
The Amtrak (800/872-7245, www.amtrak.com) Empire Builder service between Chicago and Seattle/Portland passes through Minnesota once a day in each direction with stops in Winona, Red Wing, St. Paul, St. Cloud, Staples, Detroit Lakes, and Fargo, North Dakota (for Moorhead). Though no trains go there, Amtrak provides connecting bus service to Duluth.
The train can be a good way to reach Minnesota, but, because of limited service and inconvenient hours, it’s not too practical for getting around. It is, however, possible to make day trips from the Twin Cities to Winona and Red Wing.
Amtrak rail passes, such as Explore America Fares, which allow three stops during a 45-day period, are some of the best travel bargains around. Amtrak also offers an Air Rail option, allowing you to travel in one direction by train and the opposite with Continental Airlines. Students, seniors, veterans, and children are all eligible for various discounts.
Getting to Minnesota by bus is easy, but using buses to get around is impractical due to limited service. Greyhound (800/231-2222, www.greyhound.com), the nation’s largest carrier, has routes from Minneapolis north through Duluth ($31 one-way), east through Chicago ($31 one-way), and west to Fargo ($40 one-way), but the most extensive service in Minnesota is with Jefferson Lines (888/864-2832, www.jeffersonlines.com), which connects Minneapolis to far more outstate towns.
Megabus (877/462-6342, www.megabus.com), a low-cost express carrier, connects Minneapolis to many Midwestern cities through Chicago. Lorenz Bus Service (800/784-3611, www.lorenzbus.com) runs daily from Minneapolis to the town of Virginia, taking a roundabout route past Lake Mille Lacs, and Happy Time Tours and Travel (807/473-5515, www.httours.com) vans make round-trip runs between Duluth and Thunder Bay, Ontario, three days a week.
Several small companies run van service between the Twin Cities airport and towns across the state. Some of the cities served include Red Wing, Winona, Northfield, Rochester, Mankato, Willmar, and Brainerd. Ticket counters for all of them are in the Lindbergh Terminal, just below the baggage claim area. Reservations are highly recommended and often required.
Though major cities, and a few small towns in between, are connected by public transportation, to really see Minnesota you need your own vehicle. The Minnesota Department of Transportation maintains a 24-hour statewide road-condition hotline (dial 511) that points out congestion and construction information.
Minnesota has designated 22 official Scenic Byways, but the system is something of a joke. The problem is that these signed routes primarily stick to the busier trunk lines, instead of leading off the beaten track. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t be disappointed if you follow any of these official tours, it’s just that overall you’ll find much more natural beauty and rural Americana (and a lot fewer Pizza Huts) along the back roads.
A few major exceptions to this rule are the Otter Trail Scenic Byway, Rushing Rapids Parkway, North Shore Scenic Drive, Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway, and Great River Road below Lake City, which truly deserve special designation.
All drivers and passengers must wear seat belts; failure to do so is a primary violation and the police can pull you over for it. Children age seven and under must be in a federally approved car seat or booster. Motorcycle helmets are required for any drivers or passengers under 18 or anyone driving with a learner’s permit. The maximum speed limit on the interstates is 70 mph, though it is reduced in all urban areas. All drivers must have insurance.
If you’re visiting Minnesota during winter, the first rule of winter driving is to be prepared. Take a few minutes to winterize your vehicle: Top off the antifreeze (it should test to at least 35 degrees below zero) and wiper fluid and inflate your tires to the manufacturer’s suggested psi—despite the myth, underinflated tires do not provide more traction. Also, do as locals do and keep an emergency kit—warm blanket, nonperishable munchies like candy bars, a container of sand or kitty litter, and a small snow shovel—in the trunk. A flashlight, flare or reflectors, and a first aid kit are good additions. Of course you shouldn’t drive without an ice scraper and jumper cables.
Winter driving is second nature for Northerners (few things are more entertaining for us than watching news footage of a Southern city crippled by a one-inch snowstorm), but if it’s new to you there are a few techniques to remember.
• Above all, just SLOW DOWN! Posted speed limits are only meant for dry and clear conditions.
• Allow at least twice as much distance between your car and the one in front of you than you normally would, and try to anticipate lane changes, turns, and stops so you can brake sooner and more gently.
• If you are driving a manual transmission, downshift to reduce your speed instead of using the brakes.
• Use extra caution on bridges and overpasses because these are the first spots to freeze.
• At temperatures below zero, intersections are another problem spot because car exhaust no longer evaporates, but instead forms black ice.
• If you do skid, immediately remove your foot from the brake (fight that instinct!) or accelerator and steer in the direction you want the car to go; be prepared to countersteer if you overcorrected the first time.
• Extra weight in the trunk of a rear-wheel-drive car can aid traction.
• No matter how cold the temperature is outside, take the time to scape the ice off all your windows, as well as your lights, before you drive.
If you get stranded in your car during a blizzard, tie something colorful to the antenna and stay with the vehicle—help will find you. Make sure the exhaust pipe is not blocked by snow and crack the window slightly when running the heater to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
Finally, don’t leave your car running (either to warm it up or keep it warm) when it is unattended. Every year there are many cases of thieves driving off with a target they found too easy to resist. (The police won’t prosecute and in Minneapolis and some other municipalities, you, the owner, will get ticketed.)
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition