Travelling home for Christmas is no picnic at the best of times. Given the turmoil that Railtrack has been in for the past year, anyone hoping to travel long distances over Christmas and New Year is likely to want to start planning now. Easy to say, tougher to do in the confusing world of privatised railways.

With seven weeks to go before the start of the Christmas rush, you would expect the various train operating companies to be busily selling seats on trains, but this is not universally the case.

GNER, the company that runs trains on the east coast main line is already accepting bookings until mid-January, as is ScotRail – but only for cross-border sleepers to London and express trains only. But you can reserve your travel with Midland Mainline and Virgin Trains only up until 28 December – not too helpful for those trying to plan an extended Christmas/New Year break.

It is also tricky to tell if your train is actually running. Beware of timetable changes throughout the festive period. Most rail companies will publish their precise Christmas timetables towards the end of November, though these may subsequently be affected by engineering works – something that is preventing First Great Western from finalising its timetable. The Trent Valley route and Gloucester line are already expected to be disrupted due to engineering works over Christmas and the New Year.

Wales & Borders, Wessex Trains, ScotRail and Anglia Railways have not yet released their timetables, though they say they hope to do so soon.

In general terms, expect things to wind down early on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, to take 25 and 26 December off and start only slowly thereafter. Anglia, ScotRail, Midland Mainline and Virgin Trains follow this pattern. For example, the last Virgin train from Euston to Birmingham will leave at 8.40pm rather than a quarter to midnight.

On Christmas Day and Boxing Day, only a few airport services will run. The Heathrow Express will run half-hourly throughout Christmas Day. The Gatwick and Stansted Expresses will be replaced by buses – to Gatwick, buses will run from Victoria every half hour between 6.30am and 4pm, with a final bus at 4.45pm.

On Boxing Day, Gatwick and Heathrow will be back to normal, and the Stansted Express will offer special services, as will Thameslink.

For New Year's Day, there appears to be no pattern to alterations to services. GNER is running extra trains, but ScotRail and Wales & Borders are running none. Thameslink plans to run normally. Midland Mainline has cancelled its early-morning journeys.

What about the cost? Anglia Railway, GNER and ScotRail are offering the usual discounts, but it is likely that all discount tickets will be snapped up, leaving many to pay the full price. Virgin Train's usual discounts may falter slightly between 20 and 24 December.

Because of the way that Christmas falls this year (25 December is a Tuesday), midwinter's day – 21 December – is likely to be madly busy, as people head home on Friday night to their families. The following day is likely to be congested, too. But Christmas Eve is expected to be relatively quiet across the rail network.

There are likely to be cancellations of a number of rush-hour trains on 27, 28 and 31 December, and a second surge of activity on New Year's Eve and the two days beforehand. Most people are likely to come rolling home by 2 January.

Expect changes in the services offered on board, too. Midland Mainline offers no Premier service between Christmas and 2 January.

Abroad, the pattern could hardly be more different. Although some trains are cancelled, many others run at exactly the same times every day of the year – and customers would not countenance cancellations just because it happens to be Christmas Day or 1 January.

To reach the Continent by rail, the obvious route is by Eurostar from London Waterloo. The standard procedure is for the cross-Channel rail company to run down services on 24 December, close on Christmas Day, and operate a limited service on Boxing Day and New Year's Day.

For more information on UK trains, contact National Rail Enquiries – 08457 48 49 50. You can try booking your tickets at