In early 1981, Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige was invited to the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., to speak to the Chemical Manufacturers Association. The Olin Corp. sent a company plane to pick him up and return him to Washington, and the association paid his room and food bills during the two-day gathering.

Baldrige has accepted such expenses many times since then. Is it right for him to allow corporations and trade groups to pay for his travel? Or is he simply saving the taxpayers money?

Last winter, the government paid for Attorney General William French Smith to fly to his home state of California for two weeks, Dec. 16 to Jan. 2. He conducted official business on Dec. 16, 17 and 21; the rest of the time he took as personal leave. Together with similar three-week trips last summer and the previous Christmas, Smith has spent at least 93 days in Califor- nia since taking office in early 1981.

Are these legitimate trips, or partly free vacations?

In 1981, then-Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis and his wife used the department's costliest plane, the Lockheed Jetstar L1329, for a visit to Los Angeles and Mexico City that included a full day of sightseeing at Mexican ruins. Lewis says it was more efficient for him to fly on such government jets, but that flight alone cost more than $33,000.

Convenience or extravagance?

These kinds of questions crop up in every administration. It was a problem for Jimmy Carter's aides and it may be an even greater problem in a Cabinet made up largely of former business executives. While preaching the gospel of government austerity, the Reagan administration has watched a number of its flock run afoul of federal travel rules.

How much should senior government officials travel, how lavishly and at whose expense? The bounds of propriety in this area are largely unwritten, but a Washington Post examination of thousands of pages of travel vouchers suggests that some officials, at least, may have gone over the line.

A number of federal officials have accepted travel expenses from companies and trade groups that are affected by their decisions. Others have conducted a remarkable amount of business in the vicinity of their home towns, particularly during weekends and holidays.

Some officials, such as Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, get around normal expense limits by staying in hotel suites, saying they need the space for business meetings. Regan has checked into a $464-a-day suite at New York's Essex House, a $355 suite in London and a $300 suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Many officials routinely fly first class or on government and military planes, rent private charters, take the supersonic Concorde and are met at each stop by limousines.

Dozens of officials also have found a need for frequent travel abroad, especially to the capitals in Europe and Asia. Every member of President Reagan's original Cabinet, except for Education Secretary T.H. Bell and Interior Secretary James G. Watt, has made foreign trips in the last 2 1/2 years.

President Reagan called for a major cutback in government travel in 1981, but such expenses still increased about 20 percent this year, to nearly $5 billion.

The rules on travel expenses are vague, hard to enforce and vary from agency to agency. Top officials, for example, can grant themselves permission to fly first class, rent a charter or stay in a hotel suite if they deem it necessary to conduct government business.

At some agencies, officials are required to declare private reimbursements as gifts; at others, they are barred from accepting expenses from groups that they regulate or that have business pending before them. All these decisions--as well as when weekend trips home or personal vacations become excessive--are judgment calls, and in practice the bookkeepers rarely question the boss's judgment.

Still, several officials have come under investigation. Former Veterans Administration head Robert P. Nimmo resigned after investigators found he improperly used a government car to commute to and from his home. Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Arthur Hull Hayes Jr. was criticized by a federal prosecutor for accepting speaking fees and expenses from private groups while on government travel.

For many lower-level government lawyers, auditors and inspectors, official travel means flying in a cramped coach seat, staying in cut-rate hotels and eating in fast-food joints. Under federal rules, they receive $50 to $75 a day in expenses for U.S. cities and a little more than $100 a day abroad. If the trip costs more, they generally must pay the difference out of pocket and claim it as a tax deduction.

Some senior officials, to be sure, stay within austere limits. John F. Ahearne, who recently stepped down from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, stayed in cheap motels, including a $23 room in Bismarck, N.D., and a $21 room in Chattanooga, Tenn. He has charged the government $1 for lunch in Chicago, $1.69 for lunch in Las Vegas and $6.62 for dinner in Middletown, Pa.

Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds takes the $3 bus trip from La Guardia Airport to Manhattan because he considers the $15 taxi fare "outrageous . . . . Why shouldn't I take the bus if someone else is paying for it?"

Others are not so frugal. Travel at Corporate Expense

Last winter, Carolyne K. Davis, head of the federal Health Care Financing Administration, got a warm invitation from the Federation of American Hospitals.

"We wish to do everything possible to make your visit with us in Miami Beach as pleasant and enjoyable as possible," executive director Michael D. Bromberg wrote. The group paid for Davis' hotel room and meals at its convention, just as it had at a 1981 gathering in New Orleans.

Davis has received free lodging from the Health Insurance Association of America (in Chicago), National Council of Health Centers (Palm Desert, Calif.), Blue Cross (Monterey, Calif.), National Council of Community Hospitals (Scottsdale, Ariz.), Hospital Research and Development Institute (Tampa) and National League for Nursing (Las Vegas).

"If it's a place where the group has taken over the entire hotel and they have a courtesy room, then it's okay," Davis said. "Nobody's going to buy me for $75."

Commerce Secretary Baldrige has declared more than $11,000 in expenses paid by private groups. They range from the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, which spent $569 for Baldrige's air fare and hotel bill in West Palm Beach, Fla., to the Health Industry Manufacturers Association, which spent $1,160 to fly Baldrige and his wife, Margaret, to Arizona for a weekend speech that included a side trip to a rodeo.

Among Baldrige's other corporate hosts have been Chase Manhattan Bank, Chemical Bank, the Business Council, Sperry Corp., the New York Chamber of Commerce, Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. and Dean Witter Reynolds.

Baldrige said the payments are legal under agency rules.

"I don't see anything improper in doing that . . . . It saves the taxpayers money," he said. "I have every one of these trips checked out by the general counsel, before we go, for any appearance of impropriety.

"Flying on these trips to give speeches is no pleasure jaunt, I'll tell you that," he said. "I'd prefer not to do it. The speech might be on a Saturday in some resort. You go in Friday night and leave Sunday. I don't care where it is, the fanciest resort in the world . . . . If that's your idea of a vacation, it certainly isn't mine."

The Department of Housing and Urban Development encourages top officials to accept expenses from groups of builders and real estate agents, while the Federal Communications Commission expects to receive $40,000 in expenses from industry this year. This enabled 15 commission officials to attend the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas last March.

"There were such a large number of people going to so many conventions that it made sense to have the groups pay for it," an FCC spokesman said.

Assistant Secretary of Agriculture John B. Crowell, who oversees the national forests, has accepted free lodging and meals from the Texas Forestry Association, Mississippi Forestry Commission, Forest Industries Commission and National Forest Recreation Association.

"It seems to me, if you go speak to these groups, they at least ought to pay your hotel bill and your meals, because you're putting yourself out," Crowell said.

Twice in the last two years, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Charles M. Butler III has gone to the Silverado Country Club and Resort in California's Napa Valley. Butler's plane fare and hotel were paid by the accounting firm of Ernst & Whinney, which represents a number of oil companies and utilities before Butler's agency and was holding an annual energy conference. On one trip, Butler's hotel bill included 10 charges labeled "golf" totaling $130.

A spokesman said it is legal for Butler to accept expenses from outside businesses as long as they don't have issues pending at the FERC.

A long list of groups has provided free lodging for Federal Highway Administrator R.A. Barnhart, including the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (in Orlando), California Trucking Association (Los Angeles), Western Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (Honolulu), Northeast Illinois Ready Mix Association (Fort Lauderdale), Association of Highway Contractors (Atlanta) and Associated Pennsylvania Constructors (Boca Raton).

"It's never bothered me," Barnhart said. "It is simply a room. If it is offered, . . . I see no reason to voluntarily contribute federal money." Home-Town Travel

In two years, Barnhart also has made 11 government-paid trips to Houston, where he once served as state Republican chairman, spending 47 nights in the house where his two sons now live.

During one week last year, Barnhart flew from Dallas to Houston for two nights. He flew back to Dallas for a Friday luncheon, then returned to Houston for the weekend, only to fly back to Dallas for a Monday meeting.

Barnhart said he tries "to stop in Houston on a weekend" if he has business nearby. "I don't have any qualms about it," he said. "If I can stay at home, obviously there's no charge. Sometimes I don't even see my family."

Rayburn D. Hanzlik, head of the Energy Department's Economic Regulatory Administration, has made 13 trips over 17 months to St. Louis, where his wife and children live. Hanzlik spent a five-day Thanksgiving weekend there in 1981 by visiting the agency's St. Louis office; he did it again last Thanksgiving, even after the St. Louis office had been closed, by visiting the Tulsa office for four hours.

"If I can find a way to swing by there, I do it," Hanzlik said. He said he took personal leave on weekends and paid the difference in air fare when making a personal detour from another city.

Health care administrator Davis has made nine trips in two years near Syracuse, N.Y., her home town, including a two-week trip last Christmas that involved only two meetings, both on Jan. 3.

"If people don't believe I'm working hard, I would defy them to come along and check it out," she said. "These aren't exactly jaunts. I'm scheduled to the hilt."

Former federal housing commissioner Philip D. Winn took nine trips to Denver in 1981 before announcing his candidacy for governor of Colorado. Winn maintains he did no campaigning before resigning to enter the 1982 Republican primary.

Assistant Agriculture Secretary Crowell, has taken eight weekend trips in 18 months to his home in Portland, saying he needed to meet with private forestry officials who are based there. "If I didn't have a house and family there, I'd perhaps turn around and come back a day sooner," Crowell said. "I usually come back on Sunday after church."

Former energy secretary James B. Edwards took 19 trips in two years to his home town of Charleston, S.C., tying a record set in the Carter administration. Former New Orleans mayor Moon Landrieu, in two years as secretary of housing and urban development, made 19 trips to his home town, two of them paid by trade groups, plus five he paid for himself.

"I unquestionably took advantage of most legitimate opportunities to travel home," Landrieu said. "I had nine children living at home. Whenever the opportunity presented itself to pass through New Orleans, I did." Vacations

Many top officials take vacations before and after their official business. Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan, for example, took two weeks' vacation in Fort Lauderdale last winter after spending a day at labor meetings in Miami.

If the business is just a brief prelude to a long vacation, said Ivan Schaeffer of the General Services Administration, it can create "the perception that the government is paying for you to go to your vacation site."

Others, like federal highways chief Barnhart, have mixed official business with golf, a visit to Disney World's Epcot Center and other pleasures. On one trip to Alabama, Barnhart met with state officials on Friday, then spent the weekend at the Talladega 500 and Winston 500 stock car races.

In January, 1982, Barnhart went to the Bahamas for a meeting of the Tennessee Road Builders Association. He had nothing on his schedule for the Thursday on which he arrived at the Bahama Princess Hotel. The group met on Friday, but his schedule said that "Barnhart need not attend." Instead, he played in a golf tournament at the group's expense that afternoon.

Saturday was free until an evening reception and dinner. Barnhart left Sunday afternoon after speaking at an awards breakfast, passing up the "Fun Night" reception.

"I feel very comfortable with the amount of work I put in," Barnhart said. "I earn my keep. It has been rather strenuous. I do in fact work when I go on the road." He said he sometimes skips the host group's meetings because "I'm not obligated to do anything other than make a speech."

In 1981, Office of Personnel Management Director Donald J. Devine and his wife arrived in Honolulu on a Friday and had 2 1/2 days of free time before his two scheduled speeches. Except for a press announcement on Saturday, Devine's schedule called for a Saturday night show called "Invitation to Paradise" and tennis on Sunday.

A spokesman said Devine wanted to announce a cost-of-living raise in person, but added: "Yes, that's usually something we do with a press release." Traveling in Style

Treasury Secretary Regan, who occasionally takes his staff and reporters abroad on fully equipped Air Force planes, likes to bestow small gifts. He once handed out 72 personally autographed dollar bills to officials in Tokyo and Peking.

On domestic flights, Regan has rented costly charters several times. Last year, he spent $1,100 to rent an MU2 turboprop for a 75-minute flight to Lewisburg, Pa., because, his schedule said, "longer flight time is not acceptable."

Such perks can extend to the entire family. On 75 occasions over a 20-month span, the Treasury Department has sent a car and driver to take Regan's wife, Ann, to such places as the F Street Club, the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Institution, the Corcoran Gallery, Woodrow Wilson House, Dumbarton House, the Sulgrave Club, National Airport and the Washington Hilton, Shoreham and Mayflower hotels. On one afternoon, the driver was instructed to wait while Mrs. Regan finished lunch at the Maison Blanche.

Throughout the government, 190 officials receive chauffeur service between home and office, and several have been forced to repay money for using the cars on family or personal errands.

Another official who traveled in style was then-deputy energy secretary W. Kenneth Davis, who spent nearly $35,000 in air fare during two years. Most of it was for first-class travel to Europe and 17 trips to his home town of San Francisco, where he has since rejoined the Bechtel Group. The San Francisco trips cost more than $1,100 apiece.

Davis also spent at least 40 days at 11 conferences of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, flying at government expense to such places as New Orleans, Montreal, New York, Los Angeles and Lake Tahoe. Davis was the group's president in 1981.

On one trip to Vienna, Davis charged the government for a $47.13 tip for his personal driver, saying: "He was available when I needed him, at all hours." Flying the Friendly Skies

In two years as Transportation Secretary, Drew Lewis used government planes for more than 50 trips, only once resorting to a commercial airline for a domestic trip. As a side benefit, Lewis' wife, his two sons and his wife's brother and sister often rode along for free.

Lewis generally used the six planes that the Federal Aviation Administration and the Coast Guard operate here for the Transportation Department. They range from the Beechcraft BE200, which costs $615 an hour to operate, to the Jetstar, at $3,070 an hour.

Fifteen of Lewis' trips were to his home town of Philadelphia, to which the travel cost was as high as $4,500 aboard the Jetstar.

Lewis' spokesman, Linda Gosden, said that Lewis sometimes "would make five and six stops in a day. You couldn't make that many stops in a day on a commercial flight. If there was tight scheduling, it was worth it . . . because a Cabinet officer has a busy day."

But records show that most of Lewis' flights were to a single city and that he had more than two destinations per flight only twice. Last November, for example, Lewis and his wife, Marilyn, took the Coast Guard's Gulfstream 2 jet to Kissimmee, Fla., to meet with transportation officials. The flight alone cost more than $10,000.

In fiscal 1981, the General Accounting Office says, the FAA's 17 planes flew almost 17,000 hours, or 68 percent of their total flying time, to transport senior officials and their families.

FAA Administrator J. Lynn Helms often pilots the Jetstar himself. He has flown FAA aircraft to Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Brasilia, Mexico City, Paris, Algiers, Rome, Pisa, Florence, Frankfurt, London, Bonn, Brussels, Rabat and Casablanca. His wife has gone along on 31 trips.

In July, 1981, Helms' wife and daughter accompanied him on the Jetstar to Alaska, where they rented a Learjet and a Cessna 421 to visit outlying cities. The five-day trip cost $71,800; the GAO said that commercial flights would have cost $6,700.

In the same period, GAO found, Helms, an aide and the aide's wife flew a Cessna 550 to Charlotte, N.C., at a cost of $2,413, compared with a commercial fare of $206. Helms and seven aides also flew to Jacksonville, Fla., at a cost of $12,894, instead of a commercial fare of $2,268.

Helms said the GAO report is "replete with errors, omissions, inaccuracies and inadequacies," that it "grossly mischaracterized" the cost involved and that GAO does not understand that many flights are vital for FAA pilots to meet current training requirements.

Helms said he often takes commercial flights but uses the Jetstar to check up on the air traffic control system. He said he went to Alaska at Canada's request to inspect the FAA's Alaskan system and that it cost no more to take family members along.

Lewis' successor, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, has made a point of flying coach on commercial flights. Foreign Travel

From Acapulco to Hong Kong, top officials have been taking more and longer trips abroad than in previous years.

Agriculture Secretary John R. Block, who led the Cabinet with 10 foreign trips, said he often used military planes because he was bringing along businessmen to promote agricultural exports.

"When you make three or four stops, you just can't get around fast enough," Block said. "You can't get the job done if you're hopping from country to country trying to make connections."

Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary Edward N. Brandt Jr. has made five trips to Geneva for meetings of the World Health Organization, which paid most of the $8,000 cost.

Assistant Agriculture Secretary C.W. McMillan has made eight trips to Mexico, mainly for meetings and ceremonies of the U.S.-Mexican Screwworm Commission. "These trips are by no means a junket. We work very long hours," McMillan said.

Some officials admit there are other attractions to foreign travel, at least privately. Raymond A. Peck, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was so excited about going to Paris, London, Geneva, Munich and Belfast that he signed his own approval form and had to cross out his initials.

"Sorry, Darrell," he told his boss in a postscript. "Just so flustered at the thought of Gay Paree . . . ." CAPTION: Picture 1, DREW LEWIS . . . . $33,000 for flight to the West Coast. Picture 2, WILLIAM FRENCH SMITH . . . 93 days in Calfornia since early '81. Picture 3, ROBERT P. NIMMO . . . used government car to commute. Picture 4, CHARLES M. BUTLER . . . accounting firm paid air fare, hotel bill. Picture 5, JAMES B. EDWARDS . . . 19 trips to home town in two years. Picture 6, DONALD J. DEVINE . . . in Honolulu 2 1/2 days early for speeches.