The Quick Recap and Section-by-Section Summary for People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile's review of People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry.
The one-paragraph version: Poppy is a travel-blogger-turned-travel-journalist. She does a summer trip each year with her best friend from college, Alex. As the book recounts their trips over the years, Poppy realizes she loves Alex, but they want different things (him - stability; her - spontaneity and adventure). Their friendship stalls when they finally kiss. In present day, they reconnect and take a trip together to Palm Springs. They end up having sex. They part with Poppy needing to figure out what she wants. She eventually realizes what she really wanted all along was to feel less lonely, and that she feels that way when she's with Alex. They get together, he moves to New York and she quits her travel journalism job to write a local column called "People You Meet in New York".
The book opens five summers ago, with Poppy Wright, a travel blogger, on vacation with her best friend Alex Nilson, a high school literature teacher, on Sanibel Island.
In present day, Poppy is now working as travel journalist for an upscale travel magazine, Rest + Relaxation. The last time she'd traveled with Alex was two years ago to Croatia, and there has been a rift in their friendship since then. Her current best friend, Rachel, encourages her to reach out to Alex.
From there, the book jumps back and forth between the past and present. It describes how Poppy and Alex met as freshmen at the University of Chicago, twelve years ago. They ended up carpooling home at the end of the year because they're both from Linfield, Ohio. They're fairly different people -- Poppy had been bullied growing up, while Alex was not, Poppy's family is loud and weird, while Alex was raised by a single father -- but they hit it off. Their sophomore year, they take two classes together and go to Vancouver Island together that summer. While they're there, Poppy decides she wants to find a way to travel for a living, and Alex offers to join her for trips during the summer.
In present day, Poppy texts with Alex to try to re-connect. Alex has plans to go to his younger brother's wedding in Palm Springs, and invites Poppy to join him there. Soon, they reunite in Palm Springs for the first time in two years. Poppy pays for the trip out of pocket, but lets Alex think that her magazine is footing the bill.
As the book flashes back to their past summers, it details their early trips to Nashville, San Francisco, New Orleans, Vail etc. Poppy and Alex slowly realize how much they mean to each other, and how they feel less lonely with one another. They realize they love each other (as friends). Meanwhile, Alex re-connects with Sarah, his college crush, and they start dating. Then, five summers ago on Sanibel Island, Alex had recently been dumped by Sarah. The last day on that trip, Poppy finally realized she was in love with Alex.
In present day, their Palm Springs trip is not going as planned; their studio rental is terrible with malfunctioning air conditioning, and the pull-out chair gives Alex a back spasm. Their plans don't pan out, and they end up with a flat tire. Poppy also finds herself feeling attracted to Alex.
In more flashbacks, four summers ago, Poppy had gotten sick before the trip and Alex had skipped going to Norway and Sweden to take care of her. Poppy found herself thing about how much she loved Alex, but she also realized that he wanted more stability in life, whereas she craved spontaneity and adventure. Then, flashing back to three summers ago, Poppy and Alex had planned a couples trip to Tuscany with Sarah (who Alex had gotten back together with) and Trey (Poppy's new boyfriend). Soon after, Alex and Sarah had broken up again, as did Poppy and Trey.
In present day, with things reaching a fever pitch in the oppressive heat, suddenly it starts to rain, and in the relief of it, they start kissing and have sex. They profess their love for one another, and they attend Alex's brother's wedding together, holding hands. However, before they part, they talk about how Poppy still doesn't know if marriage, kids and stability is what she wants, and Alex tells her she needs to figure it out.
In a flashback to two summers ago in Croatia, they'd finally drunkenly kissed, but Alex had stopped things from going further. Poppy had taken it as a rejection.
In present day, Poppy realizes Alex hadn't really rejected her, he'd simply wanted them to get together in a way that wasn't a drunken whim. Poppy ends up going to therapy for a while to try to figure out what she wants. Finally, she goes back to Linfield to find Alex. She tells him she spent her childhood in Linfield feeling lonely, thinking meeting different people traveling would make her feel less lonely, but it turns out the thing that makes her feel no longer alone is Alex.
In the Epilogue, they are now together and living in New York. Alex has found a teaching job, and Poppy has left her job at the magazine to write a column called People You Meet in New York.
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Prologue (Five Summers Ago)
The book opens five summers ago. Poppy Wright is on her last day of vacation at Sanibel Island, where it has rained the entire time. She’s in a bar called BAR with her best friend Alex Nilson, a high school literature teacher who has recently been dumped (by his ex, Sarah Torval). Poppy runs a blog about traveling on a budget.
Chapters 1 – 2 (Present Day / This Summer)
In present day, Poppy is now a travel journalist. She attends a pitch meeting with her boss, Swapna Bakshi-Highsmith — who runs the Rest + Relaxation magazine — about their summer feature.
Poppy now lives in New York and her best friend is Rachel Krohn, a social media “influencer”. After work, Poppy tells Rachel about how she has her dream job and the life she thought she wanted, but isn’t happy. Rachel suggests it’s because she met her goals and now has no sense of purpose.
Rachel tells Poppy to think about the last time she was truly happy, and Poppy instantly knows it was two years ago in Croatia with Alex, but they’re not really close anymore. That night, she texts him to try to reconnect. Alex responds, sending back a funny photo and telling her about how his cat, Flannery O’Conner, has now passed away. But then, the conversation ends.
Chapter 3 (Twelve Summers Ago)
The book flashes back to Poppy and Alex meeting at freshman orientation at the University of Chicago 12 years ago. It turns out they’re both from the same area of Ohio. Alex is from West Linfield, and Poppy is from East Linfield.
Chapter 4 (Present Day / This Summer)
In present day, Poppy tells Rachel she thinks her happiest memories are from her summer vacations with Alex. Poppy suggests that the two of them (Poppy and Rachel) take a vacation together, but Rachel reminds Poppy that she doesn’t like to travel.
On Sunday night, Alex texts her a funny photo of her old yearbook photo, and Poppy feels giddy with excitement. As they text, Poppy finds herself missing him and suggesting that they get together next time they’re both home. When he responds positively, Poppy then finds the courage to suggest he join her on a trip before he starts teaching again in the fall.
Chapter 5 (Eleven Summers Ago)
After meeting at orientation, Alex and Poppy don’t speak again until the end of the year, but their mutual friend Bonnie ends up arranging for them to carpool home together since they’re from the Linfield area.
During the ride home, conversation initially starts off awkwardly. But they eventually start enjoying each others’ company. Poppy thinks about how Alex is usually quite guarded (“Quiet Alex”), but she really likes the unguarded version of him (which she refers to as “Naked Alex”). They make plans to go karaoke-ing together sometime that summer. Poppy also offers to take him shopping the next time he gets invited to a theme party.
Chapters 6 – 7 (Present Day / This Summer)
In present day, it turns out Alex already has plans soon to attend his 24-year-old younger brother David’s wedding. He invites Poppy to join him.
Poppy then suggests Palm Springs to her boss for their summer feature so that the magazine will cover the cost, but Swapna turns down the idea. After thinking about it, Poppy suggests that someone else do the summer feature instead, so she can take time off to go to the Palm Springs wedding with Alex (and pay for it herself). Poppy neglects to mention to Alex that she’s paying out of pocket for the trip, though she suggest that they do the trip more cheaply.
When she arrives in Palm Springs, she texts Alex. As they text back and forth, Poppy notices that he dodges the topic of his on-again-off-again ex, Sarah, and Poppy realizes they might be on-again right then. Poppy and Sarah have never gotten along well.
At the airport, Poppy finally sees Alex again, and they hug.
Chapters 8 – 11
(Ten Summers Ago)
A year after Alex and Poppy’s drive together, the two are now friends and planning a vacation together. They’d ended up taking two classes together that year, and eventually they’d made plans for a cheap vacation to Vancouver Island. On the plane there, Alex admits it’s his first time flying.
Poppy and Alex explore the city. The trip is rainy and their motel is constantly damp, but Poppy loves the exploration and novelty of traveling. Alex enjoys it too, though not as much as Poppy, and offers to travel with her in the summers in the future. On their last day there, they meet a guy, Buck, that Poppy ends up making out with. Buck lives at a place with a bunch of housemates in the nearby town of Tofino.
(Present Day / This Summer)
In present day, Alex and Poppy take a ride-share to pick up their rental car. The other couple in the car ask them about themselves, and Alex and Poppy play a familiar game where they make up a backstory for themselves. They pretend to be newlyweds.
They pick up their ratty rental car and make their way to their budget studio rental. There’s a moment of panic when Poppy thinks there’s only one bed, but it turns out there’s a pull-out chair next to it. There apartment is hot and there’s noisy construction going on outside, and Poppy worries about whether staying in this apartment will test their already-in-need-of-repair friendship.
Meanwhile, Poppy notices how fit Alex still is, and wills herself not to be attracted to him. She thinks to herself that she never thought about him like this until that trip to Croatia. She asks him about Sarah, who ended up getting a job at the same school as him, only for them to break up soon after. But he’s vague on the details about Sarah.
Chapter 12 (Nine Summers Ago)
Flashing back to nine summers ago, Alex doesn’t have money for a big summer trip with his brother starting community college next year, so that decide to drive to Nashville, a mere four hours away. Poppy’s mother gives her a big box of condoms before the trip, but Poppy reassures her parents that they’re not romantically involved. Poppy hasn’t told her parents yet she’s planning on dropping out of college.
On the drive there, Poppy mentions that she’s never had sex. Alex mentions hooking up with a girl, Lydia, who resembles his crush (at the time) Sarah.
Chapters 13 – 14 (Present Day / This Summer)
In present day, Alex updates Poppy on how his grandma passed away, and he bought her house. She left the house to his dad, but his dad didn’t have time to fix it up, so Alex has been living in it and fixing it up instead.
With their room continuing to be a headache, Alex say that Poppy should take the bed, since she’s the one who paid and she gets migraines, but Poppy continues insisting (lying) that R+R is footing the bill. Still, Alex lets Poppy take the real bed. They go to sleep, but in the early in the morning, Alex has a back spasm from getting up from the chair-slash-bed-slash-cot. Alex tells Poppy he’s been getting these back spasms for about a year now.
Chapter 15 (Eight Summers Ago)
Flashing back to eight summers ago, Alex has now graduated from college and is headed to Indiana University to get his MFA in creative writing. Meanwhile, Poppy is living at home and working at an upscale bar to fund her traveling. This summer, they’re headed to San Francisco.
Poppy is seeing a painter named Julian, but on the trip she tells Alex about how Julian hasn’t met her family and doesn’t want to get married. Alex says that Julian doesn’t know how lucky he is and later asks her if she’s going to dump Julian. Poppy thinks “yes” when he asks her this.
Chapter 16 (Present Day / This Summer)
In present day, Poppy picks up an ice pack and some Icy Hot to help Alex. Poppy tells Alex that she doesn’t mind staying in to take care of him, but Alex insists that she go out and do stuff. More worryingly, when Poppy references an inside joke from their first trip, Alex doesn’t seem to recognize it. Poppy wonders if their friendship has meant more to her than to him.
Later, Poppy accidentally sees a job posting on his laptop and realizes he’s applying for a teaching job at Berkeley Carroll, a school in New York. She’s excited at the idea of them both living in New York. But Alex warns that he’s not sure about possibly moving, since he’s still figuring things out with Sarah (who is still in Linfield).
When Poppy gives Alex a hard time about Sarah, Alex gets mad, saying that she may not want things like marriage or kids or to grow old with someone, but he does and doesn’t want to wait. Poppy is taken aback by this. She tells him that she’s mostly opposed to him being with Sarah because she knows Sarah doesn’t like her, and Poppy is afraid she’ll lose Alex if he ends up with Sarah.
Chapter 17 (Seven Summers Ago)
Flashing back to seven summers ago, Poppy and Alex are in New Orleans. Poppy has recently moved to New York and is now dating Guillermo, a chef. She has also recently befriended Rachel. Meanwhile, Alex has recently run into Sarah, his crush from college, and they’ve been texting.
As they traipse around the city, they decide to pretend to be Gladys and Keith Vivant, a (made up) Broadway power couple. When they see a crowd in the street, they join in dancing, and Poppy feels like they’re the only ones there.
When they get back to the apartment, Alex lets Poppy read a short story he’s been working on. It’s about a guy who is born with wings. His whole life, everyone tells him he should fly. When he finally does, he breaks his legs and wings, and they heal in a misshapen form. But now they people have finally stopped telling him to try to fly, he feels happy.
When Poppy is done reading it, she is crying, thinking about the loneliness she felt as a kid, feeling misunderstood by her parents. Reading the story, she no longer feels alone.
Chapter 18 (Present Day / This Summer)
In present day, Poppy helps Alex to edit his Tinder profile. They get into an argument over what type of women he’s into. It ends with them both agreeing that they’d “swipe right” on one another.
Chapters 19 – 22
(Six Summers Ago)
Flashing back to six summers ago, Poppy and Guillermo are now broken up. Guillermo had met her family not too long ago and had seemed to look down on then. Soon thereafter, they’d gone to a party, and his friends had laughed when Poppy didn’t recognize the name of some artist. Four days later, Guillermo had broken up with Poppy.
Meanwhile, Sarah and Alex are now together, and Sarah had moved to Indiana to be with Alex. Alex says that Sarah feels weird about their summer trip. They consider cancelling the summer trip, but then someone offers Poppy a free stay in Vail, Colorado (due to her blog) so the trip ends up happening.
In Vail, Poppy recalls that one of the people they met in Vancouver, Lita, had been planning on moving to Vail. They reach out and end up rafting with her the next day. Afterwards, Poppy admits to Alex that she hasn’t felt lonely since she met him, and Alex tells Poppy that he didn’t know he was lonely until he met her. They exchange (friendly) I love yous.
The next day, they go hiking and Poppy sprains her ankle. Alex ends up carrying her down the mountainside.
(Present Day / This Summer)
In present day, Alex and Poppy end up sharing the real bed instead of using the pullout chair. The weather outside is sweltering, as is the apartment with the broken AC. Poppy texts the owner, Nikolai, again about the heat.
Alex is an animal lover, so Poppy has them go to a zoo where you can feed the giraffes, but Alex is feeling unwell from the heat and hunger, and they end up missing the feeding time. On the way back, they end up with a flat tire. When they finally near their rental apartment, traffic is completely stopped from what appears to be an accident, so they end up walking back on foot.
Chapter 23 (Five Summers Ago)
Flashing back to that summer in Sanibel Island, Poppy recalls that last night after leaving BAR. She remembers that night was the first time the thought had occurred to her that she was in love with Alex.
Chapter 24 (Present Day / This Summer)
In present day, they go to the pool to find that it’s empty because someone had diarrhea in it. They run into the couple from their cab ride (the ones who think they’re newlyweds). In their apartment, it’s now 90 degrees, even hotter than ever.
Alex says that they should just check into a hotel, but Poppy gets frustrated since it would be expensive. It turns into an argument about how Poppy wants things to go back to how things used to be, but Alex says it’s not possible. Finally as their argument escalates, it starts to rain, and their argument fizzles as they finally get a respite from the heat. Then, Poppy finally tells him “I always want you” and they lean towards each other to kiss.
Chapter 25 (Four Summers Ago)
Flashing back to four summers ago, Poppy is now working at Rest + Relaxation and has been able to travel extensively, domestically and internationally, on their dime. Now, they’re paying for her to spend four days in Sweden and four days in Norway, with Alex coming along, plus a photographer as well. Alex and Sarah are still broken up.
However, the week before the trip, Poppy gets sick. The night before she’s supposed to leave, she’s still running a high fever. She finally e-mails Swapna, who agrees to send the photographer first, and for Poppy to join when she feels better.
Poppy texts Alex is go without her (and that she’ll try to join for the second half), but Alex shows up at her apartment instead. He takes her to the doctor, and it turns out Poppy has pneumonia. Alex takes care of her and puts her to bed, and Poppy thinks about how much she loves him. Later, Alex talks about his mother, who passed away when he was six.
When Poppy is finally well enough to fly, it’s too late for them to be able to make the trip. Moreover, despite her feelings for him, Poppy realizes that Alex longs for stability in his life (“marriage and kids and a home in one place”), and Poppy wants spontaneity and excitement. She thinks to herself that they’re not right for each other.
Chapters 26 – 28 (Present Day / This Summer)
In present day, Poppy and Alex kiss in the rain and have sex. Afterwards, as they enjoy the moment, the owner finally shows up regarding the broken air conditioning. He says that someone’s going to fix it tomorrow morning, and he says he’ll refund the trip so they can stay elsewhere.
Outside their door, they also see that the other couple (Stacey and Bob) they ran into have left them a note saying goodbye, but giving them a hundred-dollar gift certificate to a fancy spa nearby.
Alex and Poppy relocate to a hotel with two proper beds and functioning air conditioning.
Chapter 29 (Three Summers Ago)
Flashing back to three summers ago, Poppy and Alex’s upcoming trip is to Tuscany. Alex and Sarah are now back together, and Poppy is dating a guy named Trey, who works as a staff photographer for R + R and who she’s really excited about. Trey has met her parents, and they liked him. She’s also brought him to meet Alex, Sarah and Alex’s brothers (Bryce, Cameron and David). Poppy thinks that Trey is a good fit for her.
The plan is to do a couples trip this time around, though Alex is unsure about how that will go. In Tuscany, they stay in a large villa. The trip is going smoothly. There’s a celebratory night when Alex finds out that Tin House (prestigious literary magazine) has accepted one of his short stories.
However, then, Poppy realizes her period is two days late. Poppy confides in Alex and there’s some tense moments, but the pregnancy tests turn out negative. Still, Alex, thinking back to how his mom died in labor with his younger brother, gets emotional.
Chapters 30 – 32 (Present Day / This Summer)
In present day, Poppy tries to play things cool, but Alex makes it clear he doesn’t think them hooking up finally was a mistake. Soon, David’s wedding festivities start. Poppy and Alex attend the bachelor party holding hands.
At one point, Poppy talks to David, who is worried about Alex. Their dad was a little flaky after their mother’s death, and Alex helped to raise his younger siblings. David describes Alex as being an “empty nester” in Linfield now that they’re all gone. David mentions how Alex had been ready to marry Sarah and had bought a ring, but then she’d left him.
Poppy feels conflicted after that, wondering if she’d been keeping Alex from marrying Sarah because of how much she needed Alex, and whether that had cost him his relationship. Poppy knows that Alex will always be there for her, and she considers that it might be to his detriment.
Afterwards, Poppy asks Alex if Sarah broke up with him because of her, and she asks him what he really wants. Alex finally tells Poppy that he loves her (Poppy) and that he was the one who broke up with Sarah because of it.
At the rehearsal dinner, Alex also admits to Poppy that he sometimes pretended not to remember stuff regarding their friendship in an attempt to not seem like a weirdo who remembered absolutely everything about her. Soon, wedding stuff is proceeding along with Alex’s nieces and nephews running around everywhere. Ed (Alex’s father) welcomes Tham (David’s husband-to-be) into the family, and Tham’s sister gives a toast. The next day is the wedding, which is a lovely ceremony.
The day after all the wedding festivities are over, Poppy finally admits to Alex that the magazine isn’t paying for the trip. It leads into a discussion of how it’s still not clear whether they want the same things in life, since Alex still craves more stability (and marriage and kids) than Poppy does. Poppy accidentally admits that she wanted to go on the trip with him because she felt purposeless in life. Alex worries about uprooting his life only for Poppy to realize this isn’t what she wants.
As they part, Alex tells Poppy she needs to figure out what she wants.
Chapter 33 (Two Summers Ago)
Flashing back to two summers ago, Alex and Poppy are in Croatia along with a R + R photographer, Bernard. By now, Poppy and Trey have broken up because they were arguing a lot. Sarah and Alex also broke up around the same time, despite the fact that Sarah had recently moved to Linfield and gotten a job there.
Now they’re both single and together, but Bernard is always there. Finally, one night Poppy plies Bernard with alcohol to get him drunk enough to leave them alone. At that point, Poppy and Alex are tipsy as well. They end up making out. Alex stops them, and Poppy thinks it’s because he’s not interested. They end up parting awkwardly.
Chapters 34 – 36 (Present Day / This Summer)
In present day, Poppy realizes that it’s not that Alex didn’t want for them to hook up, it’s that he wanted them to get together in a way that was a drunken whim. She regrets hurting him by acting like it hadn’t meant anything to her.
At work, Swapna notes that Poppy seems to be in a funk. She encourages Poppy to find someone to talk to. She recommends Dr. Sandra Krohn, a psychologist who also happens to be Rachel’s mother. Despite her skepticism over whether this will help her or not, she makes an appointment and starts seeing her weekly.
One day she runs into Jason Stanley, one of the kids who bullied her in high school. He mentions to her about how he was a jerk to her because he was a “jealous little prick” in high school and apologies. He seems to be doing well and comments on how she seems to be doing great as well. He suggests that they get together sometime (platonically) if she’s ever back in town.
With that conversation, Poppy realizes she wants to quit her job and leave New York. She soon heads back home for a visit.
She goes to the high school to look for Alex, but runs into Sarah instead. Poppy admits to Sarah that she was “careless” in her attitude about their friendship and what she expected from him when Sarah and Alex were a couple. Sarah seems accepting of this. She lets Poppy know that Alex said he planning on going away for the weekend away, but she might be able to find him at a bar called Birdies if he hasn’t left yet.
At the bar, Poppy sees Alex come in. She explains to him how she’s been going to therapy, trying to understand why she felt like traveling didn’t make her happy anymore. She realizes it was because when she was growing up in Linfield, she always felt lonely and traveling meant the possibility of meeting people who were different, where she’d feel less lonely. She then says that she know he’s the person that makes her feel less lonely. She also says that she loves New York, but she’d be willing to move back to Linfield for him.
However, Alex seems to think they just don’t make sense, and that he doesn’t want her to have to give something up to be with him. Poppy leaves and starts to cry, but Alex follows her out. He seems to change his mind, realizing he wants to be with her.
Poppy and Alex are now together, living in New York. Poppy has left her job to write a column called People You Meet in New York. Alex has found a teaching job here. Next summer, they plan to do the Norway/Sweden trip, but it’ll be on a budget. Then, they’ll stay in Linfield for the rest of the summer.